PowerPoint add-on allows online collaboration

A developer of peer-to-peer (P-to-P) technology released a new application this week that allows groups of users to view a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation over the Internet in a collaborative setting.

Called Presence-AR Adapter for Microsoft PowerPoint, the product is sold as an add-on for Microsoft's presentation software and allows multiple users to simultaneously view a PowerPoint presentation over the Web. The presentation can be stored on several PCs across a network with the goal of providing faster access to the files being viewed, said Derek Ruths, chief technology officer of Advanced Reality Inc., based in Houston, Texas.

The software adds a button to the PowerPoint interface that allows a "host user" to invite participants to view a presentation online. When the host initiates the session, a screen appears that is used by the host to manage the session. As participants are invited to join the session, the presentation file is sent out over the Internet or a private network to other users in the group. This is done by way of a technology protocol based on the one used by the online file-sharing service Gnutella.

As more users join the collaborative session, the P-to-P file-sharing technology allows new participants in the session to receive portions of the PowerPoint file from other users taking part. The idea is to take advantage of the other peers in the session to make the PowerPoint file faster to upload. When the session involves a 4M-byte PowerPoint file, for example, a single user could pull a 1M-byte portion of the file from each of four users in the network, Ruths said.

"The more people in the collaboration session, the faster it goes," he said. Ruths noted that it takes less time to upload four 1M-byte files than a single 4M-byte file.

John Labuda, vice president and general auditor at the Westlake Chemical Corp, a chemicals commodity manufacturer based in Houston, Texas, is one of a handful of customers testing Advanced Reality's software.

"I'm excited about the product from the perspective of being able to use it for online meetings," he said. The company is investigating the software as a possible alternative to using video conferencing software and a plain old fax machine.

"Video conferencing is more cumbersome. It's slow and the picture quality is really not there for the bandwidth that we are using. And you still have an issue of (sharing) the documents," Labuda said. The video conferencing system the company uses doesn't allow users to view documents from a remote location, he said.

A few vendors already offer applications that allow multiple users to view PowerPoint presentations over the Internet, including WebEx Communications Inc. Unique to Advanced Reality's software, according to Ruths, is its use of P-to-P technology to make sharing documents faster than competing Web based systems.

For example, using a standard compression technology, images contained in a PowerPoint presentation would load almost instantly on a users machine, regardless of the size of the image file, according to Ruths, regardless of the speed at which a participant is connected to the Internet. One caveat is that images will first appear fuzzy for users with slow connection speeds, and then sharpen as the download process completes.

Users can navigate through the slides in a PowerPoint presentation at their leisure, regardless of which slide the host user is viewing. With some other Web-based systems, the leader of an online session controls which slide viewers get to see. Similarly, if the host of the session logs off, with Presence-AR the remaining users can continue viewing the document.

In addition to enabling multiple users to view PowerPoint presentations, Advanced Reality's software includes an instant messaging client which allows users to chat while viewing a presentation. Each user also has an on-screen pointer that shows up on the shared view of the presentation, which can be used to point at parts of a document or navigate through it.

The P-to-P technology behind the PowerPoint product can also be modified for use with other applications. "We don't have to go to vendors to collaborate with their applications because it only interacts with the data," Ruths said.

The company already offers a version of its product for the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program. It has also developed custom adaptors for internal applications used by some of its customers, Ruths said.

Presence-AR Adapter for Microsoft PowerPoint costs US$1,295, including a starter kit and licenses for 15 users. Additional user licenses cost $35 each. Customers must pay an additional 25 percent of the licensing fee each subsequent year for maintenance and updates. The software is available on the Web at http://www.advancedreality.com.

Advanced Reality said it plans to release an upgrade to its PowerPoint product in the coming weeks that will allows users to create new PowerPoint presentations or edit existing presentations in a collaborative setting, rather than simply view existing presentations. Customers who purchase the version released this week will be eligible for a free upgrade, the company said.

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