by December 17, 2005 0 comments



Meetings
and conferences provide a platform for people to meet and exchange information.
The purposes may be as simple as a project status update presentation or a
brainstorming session for a new product, or a vehicle for key decision makers
from different strata of the ecosystem to share their visions and roadmaps.
Organizing such events at even an enterprise-wide scale is difficult when
schedules of the attendees have to be accommodated. Imagine you have an
induction program scheduled for your employees while some of the attendees are
busy grappling with delivery schedules in different parts of the country. At
such a time, they would rather miss the induction program and finish their work.
However, instead of needing to compromise and have them do only one of the two,
you could harness the capabilities of remote conferencing solutions-audio,
video, data or mixed-to let them do both, without them needing to travel or
leave their desks!

Remote
conferencing lets each participant attend the session from any location. This
lets your executives do their regular work even while attending the meeting.
Plus, specific features (like session transcripts) in some of the conferencing
options available also let them come back later and refer to what was said and
decided. This is not only convenient but also helps cut down on huge travel
costs.

The
case for you to consider remote conferencing as an option becomes stronger when
you consider that you no longer need to depend on a few service providers
renting out conferencing studios for large sums of money. The equipment for
conferencing is now compact and available right at the desktop. High speed
digital communications are now cheaper and broadband access is more
common-place.

Technologies
Skype

Telephony
using the Internet is now an age-old concept. Traditional networks use
H.323 and SIP which are both point-to-point protocols. However, Skype uses
peer-to-peer technology over TCP/IP. This allows it to provide better
quality as required for voice conferencing and VoIP transports.

There
is, however, one drawback with this. As long as a user is logged on to the
Skype network, his bandwidth will be used to serve calls between other
Skype users!

To
the user, Skype is a client just like other messengers. This client is
available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, the Pocket PC and FreeBSD. It
functions in two ways-one, it allows you to make calls to your
contacts’ computers which is a free service. Then, if they have a
telephone number registered on their account, you can also call that
number, but this is a paid service. Skype also gives you voicemail
facility on the paid plans. On Oct 18th this year, Skype was purchased by
eBay in a US $2.6 million deal.

Similar
services: Jabber, Google Talk. IMs like Yahoo, MSN and ICQ also come with
voice modules for voice conferencing between contacts. You can also
perform simple audio conferencing using cellphones that support up to
six-way conferencing (Nokia 9300).

Conferencing
technologies also eliminate the space crunch of having a sufficient number of
meeting rooms, and can be used at any scale-within a single office or across
the globe with equal ease. It can be used both with specialized equipment and
from your desktop computer.

Each
method has its own benefits and areas of application. Also, it is no longer
sufficient to have just audio and video in a conference session and you
frequently have the need to share data too. Thus, both audio and video
conferencing stations bundle the ability to plug in a notebook and exchange
data.

But
are such solutions only meant for large enterprises? No. Different solutions are
available at different price points. While some setups can easily cost upto Rs 5
Lakh, simpler solutions exist that can utilize your existing investments (like
your PCs) and turn them into conferencing equipment. Let’s take a look at some
of the options available and where and why you would use each of them.

Audio
conferencing

The most basic form of remote conferencing, audio is the basic communication
method. Of course, you could always pick up a phone that supports multi-party
calls and hold a conference-and today, even cellphones (like the Nokia 9500)
come with support for up to 5 and 7-way calls. But, you do need more than just
the ability to talk. What if you needed to send across a spreadsheet to the
other person, an information brochure, or a design plan? Therefore, you need
equipment that are more sophisticated and let you do more than just voice talk.
So what are the features you need to look for?

The
basic feature would of course be the ability to have a number of participants in
a single call. Plus, if you have a number of people sitting it at a single
location (say around a conference table), you need the ability for the equipment
to pickup their voice clearly. All of them should also be able to hear the
remote party well. So you need a good speaker (or the ability to add your own)
as well as a mechanism to add more microphones as needed to this end point.

Technologies
Easy video conferences

Till a couple of years ago, it was unthinkable to use video conferencing on the bandwidth we used to get, without going in for costly ISDN or leased line circuits. Today, with improvements in bandwidth and its falling prices, video conferencing has become not only convenient, but is also there in every online home. The simplest video conferencing setup is an instant messenger plus a Web camera and the total costs a couple of thousand rupees. At the high end, there are the type of things we see in movies-wall panels of monitors with different contacts and high-speed satellite-based connectivity. Such enterprise-class products can cost tens of Lakhs of
rupees! Then of course come the regular video conferencing solutions like the ones described in this story, costing between 2 to 6 Lakhs. These solutions give you professional quality at economical prices.

Most
conferencing phones can be easily distinguished from their cousins by their
large speakers. Hands-free operation is of course a must. Some phones (like the
Cisco 7971-GE) also support data-driven displays. This particular phone, for
instance, can accept XML data and display it on its high-resolution screen. This
can add value to conferences-the displayed data could be your latest stock
prices or news headlines or other such feeds.

While
the cost of hardware-based audio conferencing may be quite high, cheaper options
exist and include IP phones and soft-phone based networks. For instance, you
could have a VoIP MCU (Multi-point Control Unit) box and connect it to
soft-phones instead of having to buy desktop instruments.

Softphones
or ‘software phones’ are software that run on your computer, provide a
telephone-instrument like interface (like for dialing) and use your computer’s
sound card to provide audio.

If
your audio conferencing vendor provides a softphone option, it would be worth
checking out its features. For instance, the ACS-500 from AVAYA Communication
features a 24-port MCU (expandable in 24-port modules) along with softphones.

The
softphone packs features like participant count, conference recording and
playback, code-controlled conference security, Web based control features that
include document sharing and full session logging.

Video
conferencing 

Just hearing voice is sometimes not enough and you need video too. This also
adds the ability to convey more-not only that you can read the other
person’s body language, but you can also enhance information either from a
nearby (television, notebook or PC) screen or other visual aids (charts,
objects, etc).

In
the old days, a video conferencing session involved setting up special studios
with costly equipment for lightning, image capture and transmission. Today, that
has changed. It has become far more compact and has appeared on the desktop; and
it has also become much more cheaper. Of course, the video conferencing studios
still exist-VSNL for instance operates some at different locations.

Video-capable
conferencing equipment today comes with connectors for your computer monitor and
a socket for your VCR or disc player. From the video connection, you can play
pre-recorded tapes of your latest sales pitch, ad-campaign, and clips from the
annual company cruise… You can use the monitor connection to broadcast your
slideshows and presentations or show a demo using your computer or notebook.

Technologies
Conference and collaborate

Perhaps the oldest form of conferencing, this happens mostly via text sent up and down between the participants. In the early days, this had only one name -IRC. Today, we can perhaps classify most forms of online collaboration under ‘data conferencing’, right from instant messaging to document collaboration. Actually, audio and video conferencing must fall under this heading too, since everything is data after all. But we shall include only those activities here that require a computer in between to complete the action. Among the means available to achieve data conferencing are both messaging servers as well as specialized data-conferencing servers. While messaging servers would handle other tasks as well, such as e-mail, calendaring and so on, data-conference servers would concentrate only on conferencing. For instance, software like Lotus Notes and MS Exchange are messaging servers with integrated conference support- they allow users to collaborate on IM clients. But, MS Live Meeting and Macromedia Breeze for instance, are purely for conducting online conferences. These applications also allow video and audio streams as part of the conference and provide other facilities like sidebar questioning, sharing of desktops and so on.

One
innovative use such abilities are put into use are in virtual classrooms. The
IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open

University) broadcasts video presentations of its courseware on a regular
schedule. Students at specially set-up facilities watch these broadcasts. Live
interaction with the particular instructor is also provided using which the
students can clarify doubts and answer the instructor’s questions. Companies
can use the same technology to provide remote training programs if you have
offices all over the country and it is difficult to bring everyone together for
regular sessions.

For
video conferencing, we have equipment ranging from the simplest videophone to
dedicated video-conferencing terminals. When purchasing video-conferencing
equipment, look for details like quality of the camera and kind of lighting
required for optimal performance. Some equipment also let you control both the
local and remote cameras with adjustments for zoom levels and focus.

To
truly ‘conference’ instead of one-to-one meetings, you need an MCU on your
shopping list that has an iMUX, which performs bandwidth aggregation. Both
hardware and software MCUs are available and the choice really depends on your
budget.

Hardware
MCUs cost more. But software MCUs consume a lot of processing power and need a
powerful host computer. Some video conferencing end-point hardware come with
their own MCUs built-in and these can support a number of sites. For instance,
the VSX 3000 described in the box on ‘Setting up Polycom VSX 3000’ has four
ISDN lines meaning it can connect directly to four sites.

Video
transmission is something that requires high bandwidth. And for smooth video, it
should really be compressed. So, look for equipment that supports H.264
compression. Security is another area you need to look at.

Technologies
Cost of video conferencing equipment

Aethra Vegastar
Features: Distributed architecture for scalability, native IP
switching, web-based management
Silver (5 party MCU): Rs. 3.5 to 4.5 Lakhs


Gold (7 party MCU): Rs. 4.5 to 6 Lakhs


Contact: Francis D’Souza, Siemens, Mumbai. Tel: 24987235

Polycom VSX 3000
Features: 17” LCD monitor, attached camera and stereo
speakers, AES encryption, 4xISDN ports, Ethernet port, web management,
monitor in
With IP only: Rs. 3,24,441 (approx)


With IP and ISDN: Rs. 4,21,791 (approx)


Contact: Krishna P.V., Polycom (UK) India Branch, New Delhi. Tel:
26207767

Sony PCS-series
video conferencing equipment
Common features: QoS (with ARC and ARQ), data sharing with
whiteboarding, video conferencing, memory stick support, AES encryption
PCS 11P: Rs. 1,73,400 (basic model)


PCS 1P: Rs. 2,57,200 (second level model)


PCS TL 50P: Rs. 2,99,900 (desktop model)


PCS G 70NP: Rs. 5,93,000 (high-end model)


Contact: Parag Lathia, Actis Technologies Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Tel:
28340004

Some
models offer standard encryption like AES or ITU-T H.235 and would be compatible
when working with similarly encrypting systems. However, if you are

using
something that has a proprietary algorithm then you would be getting tied down
to that particular vendor. If your primary conferencing would be over public
networks over whose traffic you have little control, you need a system that can
automatically adjust itself.

Here’s
where ARC (Adaptive Rate Control) and ARQ (Real-time Auto-repeat Request) can
come in handy. ARC will dynamically adjust its audio and video rates to suit
network conditions and ARQ will help with recovering lost packets in real time.

Among
the options available, is a model from Polycom. The VSX 3000 priced at Rs
4,21,791 for the IP and ISDN based version. See the box for more on how to set
it up. This is a compact and portable set that works over Ethernet and upto four
ISDN lines to provide video conferencing facility along with the ability to hook
up a VGA signal and one from your video (VCR/cable/disc player). Its operations
are controlled using a remote control that would be fairly intuitive to someone
who’s used a TV or from a Web interface over the LAN. This Web interface can
be used to remotely set up the VSX, maintain the phone book, check up on who’s
using it and why and so on. It further offers AES encryption for end-to-end call
security.

Data
conferencing 

When no audio or video is required, you could use a pure data conference. A
typical example would be text messaging on an instant messaging client.
Messaging solutions like Lotus Sametime and MS Exchange provide such facility at
the corporate level. While you could use a non-corporate service like Yahoo for
your text-messaging requirements, you could be faced with privacy and other
issues down the line.

HOW to
Setting up the Polycom VSX 3000

The Polycom VSX 3000 is
a fully integrated video conferencing solution for the desktop executive.
It comes packaged as a 17” LCD monitor, with a fixed-mounted camera and
attached stereo speakers. Here’s how you can quickly set it up and
conference.

Step 1: The rear
of the LCD has four sockets for your phone-lines (marked as “ISDN”).
Connect atleast one phone line here. Connect a LAN cable to the 10/100
Mbps port on the other end of the panel. Also plug in the power. Toggle
the button next to the LAN connector — this turns on the ‘video
conferencing mode’ of the device. Power it ON.

Step 2: If you
want to draw the visual from another source such as a VCR, PC or notebook,
attach the VGA-out from there to the VGA-in at the rear of the LCD as
shown in the picture alongside. To tape incoming video, attach a
VCR/PC/notebook’s video-in line to the VGA-out of the VSX 3000.

Step 3: Hit the
‘Home’ button on the remote and use the arrow direction keys to
navigate to the System menu at the bottom, open the Admin Options >
Network screen from there. Set up how it gets the IP (dynamic or manual)
and also setup the hostname and so on. The system will restart itself when
you save the changes.

Step 4: Now you
can dial out (using the remote control) to call a computer (by its IP
address) or other video-enabled conference equipment that supports H.323
or SIP.

Step 5: You can
also call into the device using Yahoo Messenger’s ‘Call computer’
feature. Select the option from the menu and type in the VSX 3000’s IP
address to call it. Make sure you have a Web cam and speakers/mic attached
to this computer. Do note that in this mode, you cannot send text messages
to the VSX.

Step 6: The VSX
3000 also has a web interface that’s accessible over HTTP port 80, using
its IP address. This allows for full configuration and monitoring as
possible from the device itself. In addition, the interface also shows the
local and remote video, and a virtual remote control for additional
functionality. Using the web interface, you can also send short text
messages to the VSX that appears as pop-up messages on that screen.

For
instance, in such a case you would have little or no control on how your
messages are handled or if they get stored somewhere. In 2002, some messaging
providers including Yahoo and AOL had tried launching specialized corporate IM
services. The initiatives failed to take off although these providers had
security and compliance covered, they couldn’t do anything about providing
controls to monitor conversations and ensure the safety of sensitive data in
strictly regulated industries like BFSI.

If
you do plan to use their non-corporate services for corporate use, there are a
couple of concerns you need to address. One is interoperability. You cannot
obviously force all your contacts, especially if they work for other companies
to use the same service you prefer. But, implementing something like the Jabber
IM Server takes care of this problem by letting you talk to people who are on
different services. Look to our May 2004 issue for complete instructions on
setting up a Jabber IM server on your LAN.

Multi-protocol
clients such as Gaim are an option if you need a way to conveniently manage your
contacts on different services. Future versions of the Yahoo and MSN messengers
are also expected to work with each other without requiring any additional
software.

However,
when you do use such services changes to the conferencing/messaging protocol and
software will be transparent to you, without requiring you to install and
reconfigure your servers. Updated client applications will be automatically
downloaded and installed on user desktops.

Commercial
messaging options include Lotus Sametime (which also necessitates Lotus Domino),
MS Exchange. These solutions also add other facilities like e-mail, calendaring
and collaboration.

Data
conferencing can also be ‘presentation streaming’ where presentations
(slideshows, demonstrations, desktops) can be streamed on a network. This is
usually used for training and self-help environments where content is created
and placed on a streaming server for access at the viewer’s convenience.

One
example of this is the Presentation Broadcasting in
Vista

. Our October 2005 issue has a hands-on how to do this in four steps. What one
would do is run the ‘Broadcast a Presentation’ item from the
Programs>’Network Presentation’ menu and use the wizard that comes up to
setup the session and start the broadcast. You can also choose to pause or
discontinue display of your desktop at any time using a button on that wizard
screen. A viewer would also need to have
Vista

installed. He would select ‘View a presentation’ from the Start menu.

There
is no extra investment involved in conferencing on messengers since they use the
existing computer and network

infrastructure.

Collaboration
at the time of a conference, that is, exchanging files and working together on
something (like whiteboarding) adds value to that session. Web-based solutions
like WebEx offer to do this in a convenient pay-per-use mode. WebEx offers
document management, calendaring, online meetings, hosted discussions, and
contact management with their ‘WebOffice’ package. Their ‘MeetMeNow’
solution on the other hand is a pure conferencing solution, which includes
desktop sharing, whiteboarding and audio facility along with instant messaging. 
Both these services are paid facilities but can be leveraged by all enteprises
seeking to do either pure conferencing or conferencing with

collaboration. 

HOW to
Whiteboard sharing on Windows messenger

When collaborating
online, the ‘whiteboard’ on Windows Messenger is an interesting
feature to have. This allows two or more users to scribble on the screen
using just the mouse and share ideas. Whiteboards are useful when
diagrams, figures or other graphical entities have to be conveyed. On a
personal front, whiteboards are a great way to have a little fun too.

Step 1: Make
sure both you and your contact have the latest version of Windows
Messenger installed. You can then use the feature from either MSN or
Windows messengers.

Step 2: Open an
IM window to one contact and from the menu, select Actions>Start an
Activity, and click on ‘Whiteboard’. This will send your contact an
invitation.

Step 3: When
your contact accepts the invitation, you can add more contacts to that
conversation and make it a conference. Each of the others also needs to
have the same version of Windows Messenger.

Step 4: Now, you
can scribble on the displayed Whiteboard using your mouse for a pen and
share your ideas and collaborate on anything from a new product to a
birthday party.

Webcasting 
Today’s Web-casting applications are fast, rich and powerful. Harnessing
the power of rich-content UI such as those provided by Flash and faster Internet
connectivity available, applications like Macromedia Breeze, MS Live Meeting and
Lotus Sametime (which provides both collaboration and conferencing capabilities)
provide seamless two-way interaction using audio, video and data. Some of these
applications run off a Web browser using a plug-in, while others need or have an
optional downloadable client. Common facilities offered by such software include
two modes. One would be how the audience views the application and the other is
for the presenters.

As
a participant, you would be able to view video broadcasts that could either be a
slideshow presentation or an MPEG stream. To interact with the presenters, there
would be a text area where you can type in your comments or queries and submit
them. At the end of the session, the system would also allow you to download
session transcripts.

As
a presenter, the software will allow you to get an audience-wide view of how
many people are currently in attendance. Some software also give you a
theater-style view of the conference, including filled and vacant seats. Status
of different participants when they are watching the presentation or interacting
with the presenters or waiting for a response can also be seen. You would also
have the capability to apply moderation by discontinuing the sessions of
disruptive participants. Messages sent across by the audience are collected into
a queue and you can respond to them. Desktops and screens can be shared and you
can provide demonstrations that way.

Web
casts, today, are used by companies widely to launch products, make
announcements, present reports and so on to a much wider audience at a much
cheaper cost. Traditionally, this would involve setting up meetings at venues
all around the world, the overheads of getting people to those venues and so on.
All that is avoided when you use a Web cast instead, since the only cost you
incur is the cost of the application, server and bandwidth; which can all easily
be a one-time cost if you plan to use this regularly.

Technologies
Hosted meetings

Using the Web is the
cheapest way to conference. But what if you don’t want to invest a pot
of money in setting up your own conferencing equipment or software? The
solution is of course, to outsource that to someone who can and offer it
to you at a much cheaper rate. Well, a form of this is called a ‘hosted
virtual meeting’. Here, a service provider (not necessarily an ISP) will
setup a virtual meeting place. Using clients that would change depending
on the provider and the particular software, users can connect to this
virtual room and conference with whoever is in there. People can create
conferences and schedule them for a particular time and date and send out
invitations to participants for it. Features on the client can vary from
simple video/audio/text conferencing to sharing desktops and file
exchange.

Much larger
conferences, like modern-day Web casts during product launches or
announcements also have audience modules that allow the participants to
‘raise hands’ virtually and ask the speakers questions. Everything can
also be recorded for distribution to those who missed it.

Such meetings are
hosted usually either using Macromedia Breeze or Microsoft Live
Communications Server (Live Meeting). Both of them have their own freely
downloadable clients that are proprietary to that particular server
software. The clients can be both Web-based with the basic features as
well

as desktop software for increased functionality.

Providers of such
services include: WebEx, HP Virtual Rooms and CUWorld besides many other
providers. Some of these cost money while others require a registration
but are free.

Offsite
training is an area where Web casts can be used. Content can be recorded and
then placed online for download (or be streamed). Employees can then download
this content whenever they can

connect and view the session. This can be used in situations where online
interaction during the session is not a priority requirement or other means like
e-mail

or discussion forums can be used to take it forward. From smoke signals through
carrier pigeons to the latest appliance-powered instant messaging platform,
human

beings have come a long way developing this technology with a singular aim,
which is to communicate with his fellow beings. And to the corporate society,
that is a powerful tool. Today, that need has evolved from talking about food
supply and war to sealing business deals and conferencing with people at remote
locations which would be possible with the touch of a button and a fraction of
the cost it would take to go there. Today’s needs are as intensely driven as
those of when the means and

language to communicate were invented. As connectivity and technologies improve,
the Earth will shrink once more and conferences will become richer and faster,
and dense everyday.

Technologies
Presentation streaming

This is an interesting product out of eInfochips, Ahmedabad. The product is a presentation broadcaster that uses a Flash-based front end with a C++ driven back-end engine. The presenter can use a computer system (PC/notebook) to transmit the content over standard TCP/IP networks. Participants in the conference can easily create, edit, move or delete streamed content in a variety of formats using a stylus. The content is also seamlessly archived and can be e-mailed to all the participants. Thunder can also be used for multi-location presentation. The participant interfaces can seamlessly use several simultaneous broadcasts. This is useful if say you’re having a distributed sales conference and each sales manager needs to present his content to everyone else.

Sujay V Sarma

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