Portable Videoconferencing on the Way

FRAMINGHAM (05/08/2000) - IP-based videoconferencing could get a major boost in quality with the release of new personal conferencing appliance units from VCON Telecommunications Ltd. and Polycom Inc.

Both companies have developed portable videoconferencing devices that plug into a computer's Universal Serial Bus (USB) port and can deliver at least 384K bit/sec video using the H.323 standard for videoconferencing over an IP network. These devices are a major step up from the typical USB-connected Web camera, which usually relies on a computer's main processor to do the encoding and decoding of audio and video signals. The VCON and Polycom units handle most of these tasks themselves, allowing for greater quality.

VCON will demonstrate its ViGO unit this week at NetWorld+Interop 2000 in Las Vegas. The ViGO can support connection rates over 768K bit/sec and contains VCON's PacketAssist quality-of-service (QoS) technology, which supports Differentiated Services and IP Precedence. These technologies let network administrators set classes of service on their networks, giving time-sensitive packets such as videoconferencing higher priority than e-mail packets.

PacketAssist lets this happen at the endpoint if such QoS technologies are not supported in the network.

ViGO handles the encoding and decoding of the audio portion of conferences and the encoding of the video. Decoding of the video is handed off to a computer's CPU, according to Gordon Daugherty, senior vice president of sales and marketing at VCON.

ViGO's base measures approximately 6 by 6 inches, making it easy to take on the road. The device has a modular design with a base, camera and speaker tower, which does not have to be used if the computer the device is connected to already has speakers. Users can put the camera part of the device on top of the speaker tower, allowing the camera to peer over the top of a laptop screen instead of being placed off to the side, which can produce an awkward viewing angle. The unit also contains additional audio and video ports as well as support for a USB hub, which lets additional devices be connected to a single USB port.

Polycom's competing unit, which has yet to be named, can handle conferencing speeds of around 384K bit/sec and offers the same quality of video as the company's group videoconferencing systems, says Bob Dixon, chief research scientist in the office of the chief information officer at Ohio State University. Dixon recently saw a demonstration of the device at Polycom's offices in Austin, Texas. "It's pretty impressive if it lives up to its billing," Dixon says of the Polycom unit.

Both units will be priced at around $1,000. ViGO is expected to ship in the third quarter. Polycom would not comment on its device, saying that an announcement will be made on May 24 at IDG's Vortex 2000 conference in Laguna Nigual, California.

IP bottleneck

Although both devices promise to deliver high-quality videoconferencing in a pint-size package, the IP path is fraught with peril, says Christine Perey of Perey Research and Consulting in Placerville, California. "The quality that comes out of the camera is just a small piece of the puzzle," she says. "Once the high-quality audio/video leaves the PC, there are so many places [in the network] that it can be compromised between my desk and yours."

Also at NetWorld+Interop, VCON will demonstrate two other products: the Falcon, an IP-only unit for conference rooms and group video, and the Video Exchange Manager (VXM), a server that acts as a PBX for videoconferencing units.

The Falcon is a self-contained unit that uses a television for output and contains a real-time operating system. Like the ViGO, it contains PacketAssist.

VCON will price the unit under $4,000 to compete with Polycom's group conferencing units.

John Warnicke, a video network engineer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is impressed with VCON's use of a real-time operating system in the Falcon. "All their other systems are repackaged or custom-built OEM boxes that run Windows," Warnicke says. "Going from that to a real-time operating system is a real step up. We've had no reliability problems with their beta unit."

The VMX, which VCON will officially announce a few months from now, will have telephony features such as call forwarding, according to VCON's Daugherty. It will also have a built-in gatekeeper for setting network bandwidth limits and management functions for centrally administering VCON endpoints.

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