Desktop Video: No Longer A Toy

The convergence of several technologies is making it cheap and practical

Not long ago, I chatted with a Toshiba executive about the new Tecra 740CDT laptop. Nothing unusual about that, except he was in Irvine, Calif., and I was in Washington using the Tecra for my end of a videoconference.

No one would confuse what appeared on my screen with broadcast television. The picture was just a little window, and the video, at about 10 frames per second, was a bit jerky. But it was good enough for the face-to-face contact to add something to our conversation. The session convinced me that low-cost desktop video is ready to make the leap from interesting toy to useful tool.

COMPATIBILITY. Desktop video conferencing has been around since the early '90s, when Cornell University researchers wrote CU-SeeMe, a program that allowed Internet users with cameras and fast Net connections to transmit live video. Companies such as PictureTel and Compression Labs also offered desktop systems. But few buyers would pay $1,500 to $5,000 for a system that usually could communicate only with a system made by the same company.

Now, however, the convergence of several technologies is making desktop video cheap and practical. Perhaps most important, two international standards assure the compatibility of products from different vendors. If you're interested in teleconferencing, make sure your software and modem work with H.323 for connections over the Internet or company networks and H.324 for direct modem-to-modem dial-up links.

Besides the new standards, credit increasing computing power. Data compression is key to making video work without expensive digital phone lines or high-speed network connections. The task is so mathematically demanding that it only became practical with the latest MMX Pentiums and fast PowerPCs.

Another piece to fall into place was cameras. Until very recently, would-be videoconferencers had two choices: cameras that worked through a computer's printer port, which limited quality, and cameras connected to a video-capture add-in card, which were pricey and hard to install.

If you bought your computer in the past six months or so, it probably has a new type of connector called a Universal Serial Bus, which lets you use the newest and simplest cameras. The Kodak DVC-300 and the Intel Video Phone cameras, both under $200, are designed to sit atop your monitor and simply plug into a USB connection, which supplies both the data link and electric power. The Toshiba Tecra that I used cost $6,500 and included a videoconferencing camera that connected via a credit-card-size PC Card.

The final component of cheap videoconferencing is software. Microsoft NetMeeting 2.0 for Windows 95 and NT, available free for downloading at com/ie, can connect Internet or network videoconferences. NetMeeting also lets you share applica-tions, such as a spreadsheet or slide show. Intel's Video Phone software, which comes with a camera, does the same for direct dial-up connections.

I've long been a videoconferencing skeptic because the benefits did not seem to justify the cost and trouble. Some hassles do remain. I don't know of any software that allows both network and modem-to-modem links. And only the newest Windows computers have both the USB ports and speedy processors needed to use the technology to the fullest.

Video will never replace face-to-face contact. But it does add enough to a customer meeting or a call home from a business trip to make it very promising.