- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

n the dial-up days of Internet connectivity, Steve Koenig would use slow and unreliable video chat to talk to and see his parents in Dallas.

“The screen would freeze. Your voice would cut out. You couldn’t talk simultaneously. It was a question, then an answer,” says Mr. Koenig, senior manager of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, a membership organization based in Arlington that represents manufacturers and retailers of consumer electronic goods and services.

The advent of broadband and dedicated software for video calls gave Mr. Koenig more options for seeing those with whom he is communicating over long distances. The technology for videophones — devices that enable two-way video and audio communication — is 50 years old, but without a reliable and inexpensive way to transit the data, consumers were reluctant to purchase the devices.

“The telephone copper-based technology is transitioning to the more exciting, to the more non-regulated Internet-based stuff,” says Bradley Paleg, distance-learning specialist for the University of Maryland in College Park.

In the early 1960s, AT&T; introduced a type of videophone that connected to analog phone lines inadequate for transmitting massive amounts of image and sound data. The result was poor picture quality with delays and flickering, jerky images.

“It wasn’t easy. The reason for communication was weak, and when there was a good reason, it wasn’t reliable,” says Chris Thompson, senior director for solutions marketing for Cisco Unified Communications, a part of Cisco Systems Inc., a supplier of networking equipment and network management for the Internet based in San Jose, Calif.

Videophones were not marketable for several reasons, including cost, lack of awareness of the product and insufficient bandwidth. In addition, without an industry standard, both parties on a video call needed to have the same hardware and type of service, says Garrett Smith, director of marketing and business development for VoIP Supply, an Internet supplier of voice-over-Internet protocol hardware, software and services based in Buffalo, N.Y.

Video technology instead was used predominantly by businesses and government agencies starting in the 1990s, Mr. Smith says. Businesses found that they could save time and money, mainly on travel costs, and account for employees working out of the office by holding face-to-face meetings, lectures and training sessions through video conferencing — a type of two-way communication that serves a group rather than an individual, he says.

“Even though it might cost $100,000 for a medium-sized business, that expenditure will be recouped,” Mr. Smith says. “Business is usually done face to face, and with video conferencing, you can achieve that.”

In the mid-1990s, video telephony, or audio-visual communication, became affordable for the consumer with devices such as the webcam, which, combined with microphones and free instant messenger and other software programs, provided the needed elements for a Web-based video conference, Mr. Koenig says. Later, computer manufacturers began imbedding webcams in computer hardware, he says.

Web-based video conferences could be conducted over the Internet by converting voice and images into digital packets of ones and zeros that could be converted back on the receiving end, Mr. Smith says. However, the quality was less than that of a business-based video conference because lower-end equipment and limited bandwidth were used, he says.

“The truth of the matter is that both voice and video of the Internet are similar services that make an excellent bundled offering,” Mr. Smith says via e-mail. “What’s the use in seeing someone if you can’t hear them, or if you have to use a different device to communicate with them.”

Currently, VoIP enables low-cost voice calls to be made over the Internet, Mr. Smith says. In the future, he says, he expects video telephony technology to apply to video calls over the Internet and to cell-phone products and services.

This summer, AT&T; plans to introduce a one-way video service called Video Share, which will use a third-generation (3G) high-speed wireless broadband network that simultaneously can transmit voice and non-voice data, says Mark Siegel, spokesman for AT&T;’s Wireless Unit in Atlanta.

With a click of a button on a dedicated cell phone, one of the speakers in a phone conversation will be able to share a real-time video with the other speaker, Mr. Siegel says.

“The appeal is you’re able to share something that’s happening to you with another person in a way that goes beyond a conversation,” he says. “You don’t have to go into a room to set up a conference call. You just turn on your device, and off you go.”

Video telephony could be a major driver for the use of 3G technology, says Mark Uncapher, senior vice president and counsel for the Information Technology Association of America, a trade association based in Arlington that represents the IT industry.

“Video telephony has been seen as a potential service that could drive up advanced telephone services,” Mr. Uncapher says.

Likewise, advances are occurring in business-level video conferences.

Cisco’s Telepresence high-definition video conferencing system, which came on the market last year, uses plasma monitors to display off-site participants as if they were in the same room as other conference participants. Separate monitors are set up as if the off-site participants are sitting around the other half of a conference table equipped with projection capabilities.

“It feels like you’re in a conference room. You can make eye contact,” Mr. Thompson says.

The system is easy for participants to use, requiring the push of a button on an Internet protocol (IP) phone to send the meeting through a conference server, he says.

“The simplicity element is an important step forward. You used to have to go to a lot of effort to set up a video conference,” Mr. Thompson says.

Three years ago, Polycom Inc., an audio-video company based in Pleasanton, Calif., introduced a desktop video conferencing system that operates on the IP network, says Laura Shay, director of product marketing for the video division in Austin, Texas.

“It’s being able to put everything you do for communication all on the same network,” Mrs. Shay says. “I expect in the next couple of years for videophones to come back as people embrace video conferencing from their phone.”

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