Streaming video and videoconferencing software

For this month's review of videoconferencing and multimedia solutions for the Windows NT platform, I examine an eclectic mix of products. Even though each of the three products I tested offers full-motion video and audio streams, GEO Interactive's Emblaze VideoPro 2.0, PictureTel's Live200, and White Pine Software's MeetingPoint 3.5 couldn't be more different from one another.

Emblaze VideoPro is a challenger to both Progressive Networks' and Microsoft's Web-based streaming video solutions. Although Emblaze VideoPro doesn't have the functionality of its more popular competitors, the product is nevertheless the quickest, easiest way to incorporate video streams into a Web site. Browsers don't need to download a proprietary video player to view an Emblaze VideoPro stream; a small Java applet, which is part of the video stream users receive when they select an Emblaze VideoPro video, serves as the video player. The main difference between VideoPro and Progressive Networks' and Microsoft's solutions is that VideoPro requires a server.

Live200 is an all-in-one ISDN-based videoconferencing solution. Live200 uses a complex combination card that incorporates an ISDN adapter, sound card, and video capture board on one PCI card. The Live200 product includes a pair of external speakers, a microphone, and a camera. If you have ISDN on your terminal systems, you need to take a look at Live200 when considering videoconferencing implementations for your network.

MeetingPoint is a powerful multiparty conference server. The product is fully configurable, scalable, designed for large network deployments, and, unlike most of the other currently available videoconferencing solutions, supports low-bandwidth dial-up connections in addition to higher-bandwidth alternatives.


Emblaze VideoPro 2.0
Emblaze VideoPro compresses .avi video files into a streaming format for LAN and WAN distribution. The product can create streaming video and audio content for viewing across the Internet or an intranet without requiring the client to have a plugin or separate utility. The software sends the viewer a small Java applet with the streaming content.

Although housing both a Microsoft Media Player and a Progressive Networks RealPlayer video stream to support most browsers is a popular practice these days, one Emblaze VideoPro video stream on a Web server satisfies viewers on all OSs. An Emblaze VideoPro stream takes up roughly half as much disk space as the Microsoft and Progressive Networks solutions do, because you store only one video stream on the server instead of two, and any Java-compatible browser running on any OS can view the content.

Installing the Emblaze VideoPro software on my test system didn't take much effort. The software installs in seconds, and you don't need to reboot your system to use it. GEO Interactive recommends that you disable any antivirus programs on your system before you install the product (you can restart your antivirus program after you've installed the Emblaze VideoPro software). In addition, you must install Emblaze VideoPro in a folder devoted to the software; the product won't function properly if you install it to a root directory.

Emblaze VideoPro's main GUI is straightforward, mostly because only four icons constitute the main toolbar. The software takes video content in an .avi format and converts it to scalable, compressed Emblaze formats for streaming across the Web. The software includes 12 preset compression algorithms tailored for 28.8Kbps dial-up, 56Kbps, ISDN, and T1 connections. You can select large and small display windows; smooth, smoother, and smoothest playback; and an option to record video with no audio.

To convert an .avi file to an Emblaze video stream, select your target .avi file and click the Import icon on the main toolbar. Highlighting a file in the Movie Selection dialog box displays a thumbnail image of the file, displays the file's size in megabytes and duration in minutes, and displays the video frame in pixels and frames per second, as Screen 1, page 165, shows.

When you specify a compression algorithm and click Estimate, Emblaze VideoPro calculates the compression ratio and the Output Movie size in kilobytes. To customize compression further, click the Advanced icon on the main toolbar. A new interface lets you select from 12 preset compression algorithms and adjust the target data rate down to a hundredth of a kilobit. You can adjust frame rate from the standard 15.26 frames per second, which provides the smoothest, most stable motion, to 0.95 frames per second, which provides the sharpest picture.

The Emblaze VideoPro software lets you create an HTML tag and enable a control panel for your video stream. You can give the control panel play, pause, and rewind functions, and you can add an adjustable slider bar. You have other customization options to choose from, including adjusting the size of the display window, specifying that the video appear in a new window rather than as part of a Web page, muting the audio track, and automatically starting the stream. You can also tweak the size of the stream buffer before the stream plays on a client system. After you set the parameters you want, go to the main screen and click the Compress icon on the main toolbar. In the small window that pops up, you can track the progress of the compression.

Emblaze VideoPro places the final compressed video file—denoted by the .ev2 file extension and associated HTML page, with the video stream nicely tagged in the source code—in the original file's folder on the hard disk. To get the video up and running for the world to see, you need only copy the tag from the HTML page.

By design, Emblaze VideoPro is a unicast product only—transmitting on-demand streams as clients request them. A GEO Interactive developer told me that one 300MHz Pentium II server on a 100Mbps Ethernet connection can supply roughly 1500 Emblaze VideoPro on-demand streams without significantly hampering server performance. If you want multicasting abilities from Emblaze VideoPro, you must wait for a future product release. You won't find server-to-server tools, authentication, security, or accounting features in Emblaze VideoPro, either. This software does one thing and one thing only—it enables streaming video on a Web site with little effort. In accomplishing that purpose, Emblaze VideoPro does a great job.

Emblaze VideoPro 2.0
Contact:
GEO Interactive * 818-703-8436
Web: http://www.emblaze.com
Price: $295
System Requirements:
100MHz Pentium processor, 12MB of RAM, 5MB of hard disk space, 800 * 600 display resolution minimum, Windows NT 4.0, Netscape Navigator 4.0 or later or Internet Explorer 4.0 or later recommended

Live200
Systems administrators looking for an ISDN-based videoconferencing solution between remote sites will want to add the Live200 product to their shortlist. Live200 provides good-quality audio and video, supports various compression-decompression (codec) algorithms, and is compatible with third-party H.320 (ISDN)-compliant collaboration tools, such as Microsoft's NetMeeting.

When you purchase a Live200 system, you receive a pair of external speakers, a combination ear speaker and microphone, a standalone microphone, a rat's nest of cables, and a combination PCI card. The PCI card incorporates a video capture card, sound card, and ISDN adapter. The biggest drawback to the all-in-one PCI card solution is that the card tends to be persnickety about where you install it on a system. I had to test the card in several PCI slots before it worked correctly on a test system in the Windows NT Magazine Lab.

You install the Live200 software in two steps: first the driver software, then the application software. The installation process prompts you for the protocol your standard ISDN Basic Rate Interface (BRI) connection uses and for the two Service Profile Identifiers (SPIDs) associated with the protocol. You can choose between 15 protocol types, including 5ESS Point-to-Point, 5ESS Multipoint, NI1DMS100, NET1, and NET3. You can begin using the software as soon as you've installed it—rebooting isn't required.

You need a NET1 box to support the ISDN connection, because the Live200 PCI card doesn't include this capability. If you don't need the Live200 PCI combo card's videoconferencing capabilities, you can use the card as a standard ISDN adapter for Remote Access Service (RAS) and Virtual Private Network (VPN) capability. However, the Live200 system is designed for videoconferencing.

The Live200 camera provides good, surprisingly crisp, full-motion video. The camera's manual controls include a focus wheel, power toggle, contrast adjustment, and sliding lens cover. As with other PC-based video cameras that use an adapter card instead of a parallel port connection, the PictureTel camera doesn't hog the CPU. When you use the splitter cable the product provides, Live200 lets you connect more than one camera to a system. Doing so lets you easily switch views between conference members, or between models or diagrams.

When you select Tools, Preferences from the main toolbar of the Live200 interface, you can enable autoanswering of incoming calls, set the location of your Live200 address list, and customize the toolbars for the main Live200 interface and local and remote video windows. You can also adjust the default small, medium, and large sizes of the local and remote video windows. You can access configuration parameters to adjust the brightness, color, and contrast of the video and the sharpness of the video images in Tools, Hardware Settings. Also defined under Tools, Hardware Settings are audio settings and the network connection.

When you place a videoconference call, you can dial manually using Live200's telephone keypad interface. Alternatively, you can use the software's integrated address book, in which you can divide and organize several calling lists.

You need to select a communication level when you place a call: audio only; audio and video; or audio, video, and data. If you select the audio, video, and data level, you must have previously started Microsoft's NetMeeting collaboration software. (Although NetMeeting has audio and video capabilities, Live200 uses only NetMeeting's T.120 data-sharing abilities.) All Live200 calls must connect through ISDN. Although the built-in diagnostics software lets you select between ISDN, modem, and LAN connections, Live200 supports only ISDN.

My biggest problem with Live200 is that if I want to use the video camera, capture card, sound card, and Live200 software, I must connect using ISDN. I would like to have this functionality no matter how I am connected—whether by ISDN, LAN, or dial-up. The Live200 solution needs to spread its wings a little and support a broader array of communication pipes. Another limitation is Live200's lack of support for multiprocessor systems. Only after my Dell Precision 610 workstation with dual 400MHz Xeon processors took a painful blue-screen nosedive did I read to the end of the Live200 release notes and notice the product's symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) exclusion.

If your remote sites connect via ISDN and you want videoconferencing capability, Live200 is worth a look. PictureTel has more than 15 years' experience with videoconferencing solutions, and Live200's quality is a result of that experience.

Live200
Contact:
PictureTel * 800-716-6000
Web: ttp://www.picturetel.com
Price: Starts at $1195
System Requirements:
120MHz Pentium processor, 32MB of RAM, 20MB of hard disk space, 2MB video memory minimum (VRAM recommended), Direct Draw support for video card preferred, SVGA monitor, Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 3, Microsoft's NetMeeting 2.0 or later for data conferencing

MeetingPoint 3.5
Unlike many other videoconferencing products, MeetingPoint doesn't require a high-bandwidth connection. White Pine Software designed the product to support 28.8Kbps dial-up users and higher-bandwidth connections. The software doesn't rely on a lot of third-party tools or applications for its functionality—MeetingPoint is an all-in-one standards-based product.

The MeetingPoint solution comprises numerous components. The video-conferencing server controls bandwidth consumption and routes audio, video, and CU-SeeMe chat streams. The server also provides security, authentication, and monitoring functions. The server can act as an HTTP server, or you can use an existing HTTP server such as Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0. (You must install IIS 4.0 before you install MeetingPoint, and you must reconfigure IIS 4.0 to work with MeetingPoint.)

MeetingPoint has a T.120 server that installs with the videoconferencing server. MeetingPoint's Conference Administration Web Pages and Conference Administration Database work together to authenticate users and provide access to conferences. You can place Conference Administration Web Pages on MeetingPoint servers throughout a network for quick access to administrative functions, but you can have only one Conference Administration Database.

The Conference Administration Web Pages include the H.323 Video Switcher applet. This applet lets H.323 end users select which individuals in a multiparty conference to watch and listen to. MeetingPoint end users can also create their own conference using a Java-compatible browser and MeetingPoint's Java-based interface.

Installing the MeetingPoint software is simple. First, you must decide if you will use the IIS 4.0 or MeetingPoint HTTP server. I chose the MeetingPoint HTTP server for my tests in the Lab. MeetingPoint's HTTP server requires port 7642 to operate. You need to know this port address, and the IP address of the system on which the Conference Administration Database will reside, to install MeetingPoint.

You have several options to choose from when you install MeetingPoint. You can opt for a full install to place the videoconferencing server, T.120 server, Conference Administration Web Pages, and Conference Administration Database on one server. You can choose the Conference Administrator option to add the Conference Administration Web Pages to a server that already has the MeetingPoint videoconferencing server software installed. Finally, you can choose to install only the MeetingPoint videoconferencing server and T.120 server. Choose the last option if you intend to place an additional MeetingPoint server in an existing MeetingPoint domain. You don't have to reboot your server when the MeetingPoint installation is complete; you can begin configuring and conducting videoconferences right away.

You can access the MeetingPoint Conference Administration Web Pages either by selecting the MeetingPoint Conference Server logon icon in the MeetingPoint program group, or by entering http:// your server port/mpcs/mpcs.htm in a Java-enabled browser. Using both Internet Explorer (IE) 4.01 and Netscape Navigator 4.07, I needed to download Sun Microsystems' Java plugin to log on to the MeetingPoint server.

MeetingPoint's main interface is appealing in its simplicity; the interface includes icons for Network, Conferences, Users, Monitoring, and Help. Selecting Network calls a similarly styled interface with a new set of icons. In this interface, you can manage nearly all aspects of a MeetingPoint solution across a network. You can add additional MeetingPoint Conference Servers to a domain, define and edit server layouts and communications, and synchronize users and conferences. You can also Telnet to other MeetingPoint Conference Servers and define mail servers and the location of the Conference Administration Database. The Telnet function is a UNIX command line with no integrated documentation; however, the Layout selection for configuring server communications, which Screen 2 shows, is nothing short of wonderful. The Network interface screen represents servers and information flow graphically, and distinguishes between multicast and unicast communications.

Selecting Conferences from the main program interface calls another straightforward interface, from which you can configure conferences for various environments. Templates exist with recommended configurations for the desired number of conference participants and the bandwidth available to those participants. A bevy of tools lets you customize or edit conferences or tweak a conference configuration (e.g., restrict bandwidth, set participant time limits, enable tracking, enable multicasting). In addition, administrators or users can use a shortcut to quickly create a conference or enable privacy, video, audio, or chat, or to change the number of participants allowed in a conference.

Selecting Users from the main interface calls a user menu from which administrators exert full control over all aspects of the user pool, including adding users and organizations and associating each with specific conferences and permissions. Administrators can also search the user pool from this menu by organization, permission, name, IP address, and email address.

Selecting Monitoring from the main interface lets administrators monitor conference statistics by user, conference, gatekeeper, or server. Conference statistics include number of MeetingPoint conference servers hosting a conference, number of clients connected to the conference, average connection time per client, and aggregate Mbps of data received and forwarded by the system.

To monitor users, administrators must choose a specific conference. The monitoring window displays a list of conference participants with their names, IP addresses, host machines, and connection times. In addition to monitoring the users, administrators can control each conference participant's status. For example, an administrator can deny users access to a conference, disconnect users from a conference in which they are participating, and grant the floor to or revoke the floor from particular conference participants.

MeetingPoint has more integrated functionality and capability than any videoconferencing solution I've tested. Support for multiparty conferences, low-bandwidth connections, conference scheduling, authentication, bandwidth restriction, audio mixing, and video switching are a few of the many features of MeetingPoint that set it above and beyond most other products. MeetingPoint supports clients from most of the major videoconferencing products on the market today, including White Pine's CU-SeeMe, Microsoft's NetMeeting, Intel's ProShare, and PictureTel's LiveLAN. MeetingPoint's video quality is generally based on bandwidth considerations but is acceptable. The product's templates for modem-based videoconferencing take bandwidth limitations into account and enable white board functionality by default.

As good as this software is, MeetingPoint's developers could have done better with documentation. Although the printed manual and online documentation are complete and even well written, the product contains no integrated documentation, such as bubble windows with short descriptions, or wizards to assist with installation and configuration. Other than this oversight, MeetingPoint isn't likely to disappoint. Even so, the product isn't a snap to set up—expect to spend some time getting MeetingPoint going.

MeetingPoint 3.5
Contact:
White Pine Software * 800-241-7463
Web: http://www.wpine.com
Price: $8995 for a 10-user license; $15,995 for a 25-user license
System Requirements:
166MHz Intel-based Pentium processor, 128MB of RAM, 21MB of hard disk space, Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3, Internet Explorer 4.01 or Netscape Navigator 4.04 or later with Sun Java plugin

Corrections to this Article:

  • "Full-Featured Video Solutions" incorrectly stated that GEO Interactive's Emblaze VideoPro streaming video software requires a server. The product works with either Windows NT Server 4.0 or NT Workstation 4.0.