Companies set up videoconferencing highways

Although videoconferencing systems are widely used in large corporations, the kludginess factor has been difficult to overcome. The systems have generally been expensive, bulky and difficult to set up and operate, users say.

But two beta users of PictureTel Corp.’s 600 Series videoconferencing system, which the Andover, Mass.-based company recently introduced, indicated that the US$7,000 system may make videoconferencing viable in many more corporate conference rooms.

Bud Parer, information systems manager for the electromechanical automation group at Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin Corp., said he has been testing the PictureTel system to link two company conference rooms. One is in Rohnert Park, Calif., where Parer is located; the other is in a Parker Hannifin facility in Milford, Ohio.

The 600 system, which was jointly developed by PictureTel and Intel Corp., comprises a compact Intel 566MHz Celeron-based PC, a video camera and a microphone. The unit, which can be used in conjunction with a video projector, operates over standard integrated services digital network telephone lines or over IP-based networks.

Parer said his company’s PictureTel 600s use IP on an Ethernet connection that taps into a T1 line. “We dedicated a room in both facilities,” Parer said. “[The videoconferencing systems] are on all of the time. It’s like a virtual hallway between California and Ohio.”

Analyst Christine Perey at Perey Research & Consulting in Placerville, Calif., said the PictureTel 600 offers what many businesses want. “They want both a small footprint and the simplicity of an appliance.”

Chris DiFiglia, vice-president of IT at Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York, said his company tested the PictureTel 600 for use in the worldwide headquarters Bear, Stearns is building in Manhattan.

DiFiglia said the company plans to migrate to PictureTel equipment worldwide, replacing existing videoconferencing equipment from an unspecified vendor.

But if a company wants a videoconferencing system for a large conference setting, the 600 isn’t the way to go, DiFiglia said. “I see it as a fit in between traditional desktop videoconferencing and full-blown room systems,” he said.

Parer agreed. “It works best for videoconferences involving 10 people or less,” he said.

Parer said users can plug their laptop computers into a video port on the PictureTel 600, which allows them to display information from PC applications in a small window of the video screen. Parker Hannifin engineers have been using this feature to share computer-aided-design drawings, he said.

The 600 employs compression algorithms from PictureTel’s proprietary Siren 14 audio technology, which minimizes voice delay and produces high-quality sound, according to company officials.

“The audio quality on the system is a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve seen,” Parer said. He noted that on some videoconferencing systems, it’s difficult to have a “real conversation” because “you talk and then halt” to wait for others to speak.

The PictureTel 600 competes with the ViewStation series of videoconferencing appliances from Polycom Inc. in Milpitas, Calif. A Polycom spokeswoman said the ViewStation series, which is priced at US$6,000 to US$9,000, is based on proprietary technology, with no hard drive required. The Intel-based PictureTel 6000 runs Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 operating system.

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