Sandia National Laboratories, the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Department of Energy high-tech research center, saw a 30 percent cut in its travel budget this year.
You might think that would hurt the lab, which closely coordinates its mission with sister labs in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif.
But the lab found that when Congress closes one door, technology opens another.
Sandia got an opportunity in May to begin beta testing a new teleconferencing system that enables participants to send audio, video and data across PCs - and even permits them to use Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint and Internet applications in almost real time.
"There's a 200-millisecond delay - that's close enough to be negligible," said Jim Barry, manager of the lab's videoconferencing services. Barry has been managing videoconferencing since 1988.
Videoconferencing, or teleconferencing, has been a promise of the telecommunications industry for dec-ades. But its use has been stymied by cumbersome equipment, the inability to quickly switch from clear video images to clear text, and slow transmission speeds that made conversation and presentations impossible to conduct in a natural give-and-take atmosphere.
The World Wide Web has changed some of this, but not all. "Because of the ubiquitousness of the Internet Protocol, we are at a point where voice, video and data communication has already taken a significant leap...way beyond anything in the past," said Raj Bansal, a research manager and board member of the International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium Inc.
But the ability to share materials, such as transparencies, has remained a problem, he said, as have protocols for people dropping off or coming in to a conference, or putting participants on hold.
Not anymore, according to PictureTel Corp., the company whose new PictureTel 970 system is being tested at the Sandia lab and by the U.S. General Services Administration and the U.S. Navy.
Although the company is still developing technology to permit participation from multiple locations, it has knocked down some historical impediments to teleconferencing with a system that permits participants to view and manipulate the same data in real time.
Norman Gaut, chairman and chief executive officer of PictureTel, said teleconferencing in the past was equipment-intensive - he likened it to an old stereo system with multiple components - and each location had to set up and configure it.
That was not the case with his company's latest system. "The compact PictureTel is essentially the "boom box' of teleconferencing," he said.
The 970 is a PC-based system that permits high-frame audio and video streams and high-resolution text - including charts, graphics and even Web pages - over a single call, separating them for display on one monitor.
The new system enables anyone to enter a conference room and share information with people at remote locations without faxing documents ahead of time so that everyone will be working from the same information, Gaut said.
According to spokeswoman Marsha Hassell, the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Charleston, S.C., has used the PictureTel system since June 1, but only for simulated teleconferences. She said Navy officials are principally interested in how the system will work in a secure environment.
"We will know better what it can do for us at the end of August or early September," she said, which is when the testing period will end.
At the Sandia lab, however, Barry is enthusiastic about the system, which is now used for anywhere from 300 to 400 calls per month. "I intend to buy the beta unit at a reduced rate," he said.
The travel budget cut and the increased use of teleconferencing may have brought an unexpected benefit to the lab employees' quality of life, according to Barry