Videoconferencing system integrates PC data

Proprietary appliance architectures make sense when you want to tightly integrate many complex systems. When developers of a proprietary videoconferencing appliance use standard communications protocols, such as H.320 and H.323, their products interoperate with any standard-compliant device.

But when you want to collaborate and exchange PC data during a videoconference, sticking with a native PC platform reduces your headaches and improves user productivity.

PictureTel's newest product is designed for people who need lifelike video and crystal-clear audio, as well as graphics or text that appear crisp, readable and can be modified by videoconference participants. Developed in collaboration with Intel, the iPower 960 is an ISDN- and IP-compatible solution for a meeting-room setting.

We put the iPower 960 in our lab and assessed audio and video quality, interoperability, end-user experience and collaborative features. The iPower 960's packaging is well-thought-out and offers high-quality audio and video, and thus wins a World Class Award.

Performance and features

The paramount concerns with videoconferencing are audio fidelity and clarity, and video quality (frame rate and image resolution). The goal is to make users feel like they are in the same room. The audio and video quality depend on the technology in the endpoints and the networks that connect them.

That said, the iPower does everything technologically possible to make up for unfavorable network conditions. In our tests, the product delivered echo-free, full-duplex audio.

We subjected our test conferences to optimal and poor network conditions (for example, congestion on the Internet and irregularities in ISDN service). At 384K bit/sec, we found video frame rates consistently greater than 20 frames per second with few perceptible artifacts (blurred edges, miscolored pixels or blocks of pixels), even under low light conditions.

Let's collaborate

The iPower 960's prime selling point is PictureTel's People+Content technology for productivity-enhancing applications and seamless system functionality. For presentations and document sharing from PC to PC, the product has Microsoft's NetMeeting 3.01 built in, although the NetMeeting interface is hidden. Consequently, it's friendlier than NetMeeting. When a connection can support a T.120 data conference, an icon appears in the lower right corner of the screen. After a few simple dialog boxes, you can share any local or server-based file with the people in your conference.

Furthermore, the iPower integrates heterogeneous input -- from laptops, paper documents, Web content and whiteboards -- with video in a way that automatically alters the data processing to fit the type of information being transferred. This is done through a specially designed interface called ImageShare and software in the PC.

In contrast with conferencing systems that use National Television Standard Code displays for output of PC applications (such as an Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation), the iPower 960's input-device sensitivity lets participants see content clearly. The iPower 960 detected when the content was not video from the camera source, and therefore encoded directly to VGA, SVGA and XGA computer resolutions using the H.263 "custom picture format" facility. Using H.263 to encode XGA provides significantly faster display speeds than T.120 data conferencing.

User interface

The iPower 960's main graphical user interface hasn't changed dramatically from the look and feel of the PictureTel TeamStation (the company's previous PC-based product), and it remains attractive. The fonts are bright and large enough to have instructions and text be seen across the room while you are entering numbers on the screen or selecting different options. This is the case until you hit an error, when the fonts are so small that you must get up close to read the text.

The handheld remote control's design is intuitive (it matches what's on the screen), and the wireless keyboard/mouse is easy to use. The icons on ImageShare could be made clearer but, fortunately, a contrasting blue button invites users to toggle between various inputs. Having access to detailed conference information in the system tray during a session without losing sight of the real-time video was valuable and convenient.

Installation, documentation and customer support

Installing a PC-based product is always more complicated than installing an information appliance because there are more opportunities to make errors. We believe most iPower 960s will be set up by professional network managers or systems integrators who will not be surprised to find themselves installing Windows NT.

We found the graphical icons and colored connectors on the boards and cables very helpful during installation. We correctly connected the 11 black cables -- one each for camera, microphone, speakers, ISDN BRI 1, ISDN BRI 2, ISDN BRI 3, LAN (Ethernet), display, ImageShare, power and wireless keyboard/ remote control -- on our first attempt.

In our first calls, we suffered from "cockpit" confusion because we failed to note that the application defaults to "local audio mute" when automatically receiving inbound calls. This, technical support says, is a feature, not a bug, designed to prevent a remote location from eavesdropping on a meeting in a videoconference-enabled room.

During configuration and testing, it is time-consuming and awkward to have the configuration of ISDN, IP settings, local directory entries and other audio/video options in a separate application that will not run when the iPower user interface application is up. Once configured, the advantage of this scenario is that occasional users in a meeting room are less likely to accidentally tamper with system settings.

We didn't use it, but we found the documentation on the system complete and thorough.

Troubleshooting the system is relatively easy for those familiar with NT. The application creates an H.323 log file, recording every detail in real time. This will help identify a source of problems, but we expect PictureTel to release more robust tools for administrators to avoid configuration and maximize feature functionality.

Management and administration

Because we didn't test PictureTel Network Manager, a plug-in application for Hewlett-Packard OpenView that gives administrators in-depth status and analysis metrics on system readiness and health, we couldn't test PictureTel's net-based system management and administration tools for remote monitoring and session management.

Conclusion

Computer-enabled collaboration is easier to conceptualize than to implement in a product. When you add full-frame, full-motion video with full-duplex audio, the complexity escalates exponentially. We found that PictureTel's iPower 900 series gracefully integrates videoconferencing and visual collaboration. Additions to the iPower product family based on this platform will fit nicely into firms of any size.

This story, "Videoconferencing system integrates PC data" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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