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The Videoconference as a Bicoastal Pas de Deux


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STAGGER the line. Elyssa, step forward. That looks good.'' Ben Thompson never raises his voice as he guides the four dancers into their opening positions. Without videoconferencing equipment, however, he would need to bellow, since he is in Los Angeles and the dancers are in New York.

Mr. Thompson and a colleague, Kevin Barron, operate Hyper Media Education, a performing arts company based in Los Angeles that relies on technology to reduce geographic barriers between its performers and creative directors. Sometimes, however, the technology also erodes the performers' patience.

This time there were problems at the Los Angeles end, where Mr. Thompson was working with another group of dancers and musicians who may eventually perform with the New York troupe. A continent away in SoHo, dancers in a converted loft waited while technicians at Polycom, the video equipment vendor, helped solve the glitches in Los Angeles.

After about half an hour the bugs were eliminated, allowing images of the Los Angeles performers to stream over a high-speed data line and emerge on the television screen in New York. Everyone's attention gratefully turned toward synchronizing swoops and turns instead of video signals under the watchful eyes of Mr. Thompson.


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Videoconferencing equipment is costly to acquire and configure, yet its ability to create instantaneous and real-time collaborations can justify the cost.

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Polycom's ViewStation, used by the Los Angeles and New York troupes with assistance from a benefactor, costs from $4,000 to $15,000 per site depending on the size of the room and field of view. Other vendors, including Tandberg and Radvision, offer similarly priced and equipped units that will send and receive high-quality full-color full-screen video in which the speaker's lips move in sync with the spoken words.

Most regular users of the technology opt to purchase it outright. Occasional users are usually better off renting time at video conference sites like those operated by Kinko's in partnership with Sprint. Rental prices at Kinko's range from $225 to $265 per hour.

Videoconferencing products have a checkered history, often boasting a reliability and an image quality they do not deliver. But the technology is rapidly evolving as law firms, banks, architects, educational institutions and medical providers and others who can afford it use it to save time and reduce their travel budgets.

Tracy O'Such, a consultant at Spence Associates, an employee recruitment firm in New York, uses videoconferencing for initial interviews with job candidates. ''We get immediate feedback on the candidate's suitability without the complication and cost of flying them into New York,'' she said.

The real-time interactivity that distinguishes videoconferencing from television or videotapes can initially cause some uneasiness. While it is participatory, videoconferencing cannot duplicate all the subtleties of face-to-face interaction, including voice inflection and minute physical movements. Improvements in image resolution and the recording of motion could help reduce the faint sense of disembodiment, since more realistic images will make the participants look more like themselves.

A typical videoconference setup consists of two modules, each with a combination camera and microphone and a large-screen television. Some cameras automatically swivel to face whomever is speaking, which can be somewhat unnerving for that person, while others have a fixed field of vision, requiring speakers to stay in its focal field.

Configuring the equipment is relatively easy. The back of each module contains ports for plugging in the monitor or television and the data line. A remote control governs all of the unit's functions, including its initial setup, help screens, an address book, manual camera controls, and adjustments in image and audio quality. Most units also include a high-speed Ethernet port for connecting the module to a computer network. That makes it easier to use the system for an internal conference.


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With most systems, a portion of the television screen, about 10 percent, can be reserved to display the image being transmitted to the other site.

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The quality of the videoconferencing equipment and the transmission medium together determine the image quality and the participants' satisfaction with the experience. At a minimum, fluid on-screen motion requires a 128-kilobit-per-second integrated services digital network line. Images will look even sharper with a digital subscriber line.

''I.S.D.N. lines cost about $50 per month plus $45 per hour for a coast-to-coast call,'' said Andy Nilssen, a senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research firm specializing in multimedia communications markets. ''This delivers about 15 frames per second, which many corporate customers find acceptable. To step up to 30 frames per second, you need three 128-kilobit-per-second lines, nearly tripling the cost.''

New equipment that is easier to configure should help remedy the reliability problems that have dogged videoconferencing. For example, the newer equipment now stands alone and does not require a computer and software to control it as the older versions did.

The high cost of signal transmission is the next major hurdle to overcome. To lower transmission costs and to offer the convenience of connecting anywhere at any time, equipment vendors would like to rely on the Internet. But the Internet imposes such severe limits on the volume of data it can handle that the rate of image transmission drops from 15 frames per second to one frame every three seconds or so.

Christine Perey, a video industry consultant in Placerville, Calif., predicts that the obstacles to using the Internet as a conduit will diminish over the next six to 12 months. ''All videoconferencing equipment vendors plan to offer some sort of streaming video that can safely travel over the Internet,'' she said.

Ms. Perey said that image quality suffered partly because the Internet's backbone carriers inadvertently trash streaming video signals originating from a competitor by starting and stopping the data stream. Carriers predict that new standards will finally yield the experience sought by consumers and promised by vendors: a reliable and trouble-free videoconference.

For the Budget-Minded

Grainy but Much Cheaper, a Video Chat May Suffice

IF you want to see and talk with far-off family or friends and do not want to spend thousands of dollars on videoconferencing equipment and high-speed lines, there is a far cheaper option. But you have to be willing to accept herky-jerky images with grainy resolution and a sound quality that may be far from pristine.

Basic videoconferencing, more properly called video chat, can be achieved with an inexpensive Web camera and low-cost or free software. Most video chat is one-on-one, but some software allows for group chat.


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A basic setup consists of the Web camera, a video capture card for the PC (expensive cameras already include these cards), a microphone, speakers, a computer with an Internet connection and software like Microsoft's NetMeeting, which is free (and already bundled with Windows 2000), or CUseeMe ($40 at store .cuseemeworld.com; a free trial version is also available).

Most video chat software is designed to be configured easily by using on-screen menus that let you select the camera, connection speed (a 56K modem or broadband connection is usually required) and features like video encoding.

The software usually adjusts its send and receive rates to the network connection: the higher the bandwidth, the more frequently the images are refreshed. With a low-speed connection, expect small and fuzzy images that are refreshed every few seconds. Not broadcast quality, but good enough for sharing the latest family gossip with Uncle Charlie.


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