Conferencing and collaboration in two different worlds

Last month, the Windows NT Magazine Lab began evaluating videoconferencing solutions for Windows NT. This month, I tested Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.02, which uses Microsoft's free NetMeeting videoconferencing and collaboration software, and ExoVision Technologies' VRCom Pro 1.0, a virtual-reality conferencing and collaboration program. VRCom Pro doesn't offer video, but the product's conferencing functionality can benefit businesses that need collaborative, audio communications capabilities over a dial-up network.

Intel is diversifying its consumer and business offerings to include tools with numerous uses, including videoconferencing. Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.02 (iBVC 4.02) with ProShare technology targets employees who need the convenience of face-to-face meetings but want to avoid the hassles of booking travel arrangements and braving crowded airports. This product works well; it is the quintessential video phone.

The iBVC package contains a composite-color video camera, a PCI video-capture card, a headset with one ear speaker and a microphone, a microphone with a stand, an ISDN Basic Rate Interface (BRI) ISA adapter and cable, a CD-ROM that contains the iBVC software, and installation manuals in five languages: English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Intel built iBVC for international businesses. The product supports US and European ISDN connections and most international switching systems.

You can use the ISDN card for numerous purposes, including Internet access (Point-to-Point Protocol­PPP­or Multilink Point-to-Point Protocol­MPPP) and offsite LAN access. You can split the ISDN bandwidth so that you use a portion of it for videoconferencing and the rest for other bandwidth-intensive tasks. The ISDN card is compatible with ISDN PBXs, and it supports the H.323 protocol for negotiating communications with a proxy server through a firewall. (For more information about H.323 and other videoconferencing protocols, see the sidebar "Videoconferencing Protocols," page 86.)

The PCI card is a combination video-capture and sound card. One of my test systems doesn't have sound support, but I didn't have to configure two cards and fill two of the machine's expansion slots to run iBVC. I placed the PCI video-capture card in one slot, installed the software, and was ready to configure iBVC.

The PCI card supplies power to the camera, so you don't need to plug in a separate power adapter, as you do with many PC-based video solutions. The iBVC system supports two cameras on one machine. The cameras don't need to be Intel devices. If they have a standard RCA input jack, they'll probably work. I couldn't get parallel port-based PC cameras to work with iBVC.

The camera that comes with iBVC features S-video and composite inputs, and it delivers crisp images. It has a sliding cover that protects the lens when you aren't using the device. You twist a knob on the side of the camera to focus the lens. You adjust the image's hue, sharpness, and brightness by selecting among the three properties with a three-position switch on the side of the camera, then using the up and down arrows next to the switch to adjust the selected property.

I installed the PCI video-capture card on a Digital Equipment PC 3500 with a 300MHz Pentium II processor, and on a Compaq WS 6000 with dual 333MHz Pentium II processors. Configuring the PCI video-capture card to run on NT didn't cause me any major problems on either test system, and installing the iBVC software was a smooth and easy process.

When iBVC starts, it opens two windows, as Screen 1, page 86 shows. The Conference Manager window lets you connect to other iBVC users, access an address book, chat, transfer files, participate in application and high-resolution image sharing, and configure a variety of parameters and preferences, including your network connection and proxy server.

The Video Window contains camera controls (beneath the left video image in Screen 1) that let you take snapshots, pan, and zoom. The pan and zoom options are limited in scope and only marginally affect the framing of your subject. The Video Window contains a volume control, mute control (for stopping audio or video transmissions or both), layout control (for configuring the iBVC windows' onscreen appearance), and conferencing control. The conferencing control gives you nearly all the functionality that the Conference Manager window offers, including the ability to connect and disconnect, use a white board, exchange photos, engage in a chat, and transfer files. For its collaborative capabilities, iBVC relies on Microsoft's NetMeeting, which comes on the iBVC CD-ROM and starts when you open the iBVC software. (For more information about NetMeeting, see the sidebar "NetMeeting," page 88.) In my tests, iBVC demonstrated compatibility problems with NetMeeting 2.1, so I used NetMeeting 2.0.

The Video Window provides the realtime video display. The Video Window remains on top of any other documents that are onscreen unless you minimize it. This feature lets you modify documents or spreadsheets while watching the person you're videoconferencing with. You don't have to switch back and forth between the application and video windows.

Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.02
By default, the Video Window displays images of two conference participants, with the local machine's user on the left. You can switch the local and remote users' windows or configure one window to be above the other. You can also make the Video Window a full-screen display, but the video images become grainy at that size. The Conference Manager window resembles a corner office with a table and a view of a mountain lake. The Conference Manager window represents conference participants through snapshots. You can click a participant's photo to open a window that provides the individual's contact and company information.

Making forums resemble virtual offices, boardrooms, or conference rooms is ridiculous. When I'm videoconferencing, I know I'm looking at my monitor; I want to use videoconferencing tools to do business, not to amuse myself. Intel would save a lot of screen space without losing functionality if it eliminated the Conference Manager window and placed a small icon in the Video Window for each participant's business card.

The iBVC videoconferencing experience is the next best thing to meeting face to face. The video and audio were wonderful over my 10 megabits per second (Mbps) test network in the Lab. I didn't notice any skips in the video stream, and the audio transmitted with only a slight delay. The iBVC audio was not the garbled, broken type of communication I'm used to hearing in PC audio software.

I used only two machines in my tests, but iBVC supports as many as five audio, video, and data endpoints in a multipoint videoconference. The software supports as many as eight audio, video, and data endpoints if participants connect through one of the third-party Internet Locator Service (ILS) servers that Intel provides with the help of partners such as AT&T, IBM Global Services, Sprint, GTE, Deutsche Telekom, Bell Canada, France Telecom, and Telecom Italia.

Not surprisingly, iBVC has high system requirements. Intel claims a 166MHz Pentium processor will run the software, but the company highly recommends a 266MHz Pentium II or faster processor with a minimum of 256KB of Level 2 cache. I doubt that iBVC runs well on Intel's low-priced, cacheless (or nearly cacheless) Celeron systems. Intel recommends that you use a graphics card that supports DirectX 2.0 or later.

I like iBVC. The software's easy installation and superb functionality won't disappoint you if you want to video-conference over an ISDN line or a LAN. Intel claims that iBVC is now compatible with NetMeeting 2.1 and that the product now lets you resize video display windows to a size between small and full-screen.

Intel Business Video Conferencing 4.02
Contact: Intel * 800-538-3373
Web: http://www.intel.com
Price: $1199
System Requirements: 166MHz Pentium Multimedia Extensions processor or better (233MHz Pentium II processor recommended), 32MB of RAM, 70MB of hard disk space, 256-color or better SVGA or VGA monitor, One free ISA slot, One free PCI slot, CD-ROM drive, Windows NT Workstation 4.0 or Windows 95, Service Pack 3 or later for application sharing on Windows NT, DirectX 2.0 or later graphics card for high resolution of full-screen images
For videoconferencing via a LAN or WAN:
One NIC per computer, Windows NT- or Windows 95-native 32-bit TCP/IP

VRCom Pro 1.0
ExoVision Technologies' VRCom Pro 1.0 doesn't provide videoconferencing functionality, but the product is more than an Internet telephony application with collaborative capabilities. According to ExoVision, VRCom Pro is a serious business tool, but I found it to be more of a 3-D virtual playground.

VRCom Pro supports a variety of audio Coder-DECoders (codecs). ExoVision based the software on NetMeeting and the T.120 protocol. VRCom Pro opens NetMeeting when users initiate collaborative computing functions. (NetMeeting comes on the VRCom Pro CD-ROM and installs when you install VRCom Pro.) VRCom Pro lets two users share files and applications. ExoVision hopes to remove the two-participant limit in the next version of VRCom Pro.

I tested VRCom Pro's audio capabilities on an Intergraph TDZ 2000 with dual 333MHz Pentium II processors, 256MB of Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM), and a standard PC headset. I attached the system to the Internet via a T1 LAN link. VRCom Pro let me establish good audio communications with another VRCom Pro user who was connected to the Internet via a T1 link.

VRCom Pro works through dial-up connections. I took the software home and installed it on my aging, piecemeal PC that has a 100MHz Pentium processor and 32MB of RAM. The fact that the machine's dated sound card doesn't support full-duplex audio made communications more difficult, because I had to constantly switch the microphone off and on to listen to and send audio. However, the sound my 28.8 kilobits per second (Kbps) connection transmitted wasn't bad.

Like many audio conferencing products, VRCom Pro improves on NetMeeting's mundane, Windows-style interface. VRCom Pro provides a virtual world that includes a café, an office, a boardroom, and a call center, all of which include 3-D representations of chairs, tables, soda fountains, water coolers, and appliances. It also includes a variety of male and female avatars. You can use any 3-D multimedia application that produces files with the .3ds extension to create new virtual objects and scenes. But you probably won't need to create new objects because of the variety of objects already in VRCom Pro. Screen 2 shows the VRCom Pro interface.

When you share a file, VRCom Pro displays the file as a picture hanging on the wall of the room you select. For example, if you open a picture of a zebra in Microsoft Paint and share the picture through VRCom Pro, the software places an icon in your virtual world that contains the zebra picture surrounded by Paint's border and layout. You can place or move a picture (or any 3-D object in the virtual world) anywhere you want. You use two sets of arrows grouped at the bottom of the interface to maneuver objects.

This software lets you explore the limits of audio and collaborative communications over a dial-up network, and it runs great on NT. Download a trial version of the software from the ExoVision Web site (http://www.exovision.com) and see for yourself what VRCom Pro can do. You can't paste .jpg images on your avatar's face or animate your avatar in the trial version, but you can get a feel for the software's capabilities.

VRCom Pro's intuitive drag-and-drop collaboration functions and reasonable-quality audio communications across the Internet are sure to endear this software to some businesspeople. Branch offices and telecommuters can use VRCom Pro to save money on long-distance communications. However, I'm not sure how the business world that ExoVision is targeting will react to this playful product. If you're looking for something different, look at VRCom Pro.

VRCom Pro 1.0
Contact: ExoVision Technologies * 613-739-9120
Web: http://www.exovision.com
Price: $79.95
System Requirements: 100MHz Pentium processor, 32MB of RAM, Internet connection, 256-color screen, 640 * 480 resolution, 16-bit video recommended, Windows NT Workstation or Server 4.0, 16-bit sound card (full-duplex sound card recommended), Microphone, Speakers