Now Just Picture This; Advances Put Video Telephony in More Hands

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

Now Just Picture This; Advances Put Video Telephony in More Hands


Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the dial-up days of Internet connectivity, Steve Koenig would use slow and unreliable video chat to talk to and see his parents in Dallas.

"The screen would freeze. Your voice would cut out. You couldn't talk simultaneously. It was a question, then an answer," says Mr. Koenig, senior manager of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, a membership organization based in Arlington that represents manufacturers and retailers of consumer electronic goods and services.

The advent of broadband and dedicated software for video calls gave Mr. Koenig more options for seeing those with whom he is communicating over long distances. The technology for videophones - devices that enable two-way video and audio communication - is 50 years old, but without a reliable and inexpensive way to transit the data, consumers were reluctant to purchase the devices.

"The telephone copper-based technology is transitioning to the more exciting, to the more non-regulated Internet-based stuff," says Bradley Paleg, distance-learning specialist for the University of Maryland in College Park.

In the early 1960s, AT&T introduced a type of videophone that connected to analog phone lines inadequate for transmitting massive amounts of image and sound data. The result was poor picture quality with delays and flickering, jerky images.

"It wasn't easy. The reason for communication was weak, and when there was a good reason, it wasn't reliable," says Chris Thompson, senior director for solutions marketing for Cisco Unified Communications, a part of Cisco Systems Inc., a supplier of networking equipment and network management for the Internet based in San Jose, Calif.

Videophones were not marketable for several reasons, including cost, lack of awareness of the product and insufficient bandwidth. In addition, without an industry standard, both parties on a video call needed to have the same hardware and type of service, says Garrett Smith, director of marketing and business development for VoIP Supply, an Internet supplier of voice-over-Internet protocol hardware, software and services based in Buffalo, N.Y.

Video technology instead was used predominantly by businesses and government agencies starting in the 1990s, Mr. Smith says. Businesses found that they could save time and money, mainly on travel costs, and account for employees working out of the office by holding face-to-face meetings, lectures and training sessions through video conferencing - a type of two-way communication that serves a group rather than an individual, he says.

"Even though it might cost $100,000 for a medium-sized business, that expenditure will be recouped," Mr. Smith says. "Business is usually done face to face, and with video conferencing, you can achieve that."

In the mid-1990s, video telephony, or audio-visual communication, became affordable for the consumer with devices such as the webcam, which, combined with microphones and free instant messenger and other software programs, provided the needed elements for a Web-based video conference, Mr. Koenig says. Later, computer manufacturers began imbedding webcams in computer hardware, he says.

Web-based video conferences could be conducted over the Internet by converting voice and images into digital packets of ones and zeros that could be converted back on the receiving end, Mr. Smith says. However, the quality was less than that of a business-based video conference because lower-end equipment and limited bandwidth were used, he says. …

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