Fall 1997
Lizz Caplan
Advanced Multi-Media, EME 6936

Audio-Video Conferencing and Internet Telephony Software Systems

  • Introduction
  • Typical Features of Audio/Video Conferencing Systems
  • Premier Audio/Video Conferencing Systems
  • Audio/Video Conferencing Software
  • Other Resources
  • Conclusion
  • More than any other aspect of computer technology, desktop audio/video conferencing is the most likely to bring the remaining 'dinosaurs' through the 21st century gateway to global connectivity. For families and individuals with friends and loved ones spread far and wide, the immediacy and intimacy of this type of communication offers an utterly compelling reason to hop on-line. For long-distance telephone consumers the financial savings potential presents a must-have demand that is far too easily accomplished to be delayed. Many talk of the future of communications - a time when we will be able to see as well as hear our telephone partners - but few realize that such a time is already here.

    Right now, with a 28,8 modem, free and beta versions of audio conferencing software can be downloaded in 16 minutes or less. A ten dollar microphone gives you audio communications at the cost of a local telephone call. Go shopping this evening for a two hundred dollar 'eye-ball camera' and you can have a color video-phone-call this very night. It's almost too simple and cost-saving not to do.

    Typical Features of Audio/Video Conferencing Systems

    The feature that all of the audio and video products and packages share is the technology of Internet telephony. The primary goal of these systems is to provide simultaneous (real-time) communications through voice audio at a minimum and through smooth full-motion color video at the ideal. The Internet has already been shown to allow simultaneous text communications through 'chat-rooms, MOOs, MUDs and bulletin boards'. The following are features offered by many conferencing packages that apply Internet telephony technology.

    Full Duplex voice communication operation with automatic voice detection - allows two or more people to talk simultaneously over the Internet, just like over a regular phone, reminiscent of a 'party line' conversation.

    Text Chat tools let speakers type in their contributions even while they or someone else is speaking. Chat text transmission ensures delivery of the speaker's exact words and gives all participants a written record of the proceedings.

    Streaming Video exchange allows real-time viewing of conversation partners. The quality of the moving images depends upon the speed of the connection, but since video conferencing generally entails seated people viewing other people who are also seated in front of their computer monitors, the amount of action is minimal. The movie, therefore, appears smooth and natural. Facial expressions and gestures can be transmitted in sync with the audio. Most importantly, video communication allows the participants to see when their partners are busy typing, or looking away from the monitor, etc., which saves the constant questioning: "are you still there?"

    Whiteboard Sharing allows users to collaborate on a single worksheet with text tools, drawing tools and other graphic media.

    File Transfer through an Internet telephony system means that the sender can immediately verify receipt of the transferred files and objects. Participants can send each other graphics, sound files, executable files, code, etc., while still in voice/video contact.

    Application sharing means that users can share software programs even when only one of the participants actually has that application installed on their computer. This features enables participants to surf the Internet in tandem when one user acts as the leader.

    Using the Internet for any and all functions of a normal telephone includes real-time synchronous audio, answering machine, speed dial, caller ID, call forwarding, automatic dialing, voice mail, etc., and it combines those capabilities with video, graphic, text and other data transfer protocols. Few of the existing conferencing packages strive to achieve all of those results, but between them, the complete technology is already in use and functioning well.

    Premier Audio/Video Conferencing Systems

    Two of the premier applications for A/V conferencing are NetMeeting from Microsoft and Internet Phone from Vocaltec. They are considered premier not just because they have big parent companies, but because of the range of features they offer and the ease with which those features may be integrated with other (existing and coming) applications and hardware. A third product, Internet PhoneJACK from Quicknet is a hardware package included as premier because it allows existing telephone equipment to be adapted for new techological functions.

    Release 5 (August 1997) adds the very attractive feature of "PC to Phone" capability. That means the software user can call any phone number in the world and have real-time conversation with a user of a simple telephone. (Yes, that means virtually free long-distance calls with only one party in possession of a computer.) Release 5 is available to download for a free 2-week trial. It's over 8 meg and it expires automatically.

    The following is an example of a Hop-Off service that integrates to create PC-to-Phone telephony.

    Audio/Video Conferencing Software Applications

    There are many products and packages that enable audio and/or video conferencing. Some of them provide necessary hardware (sound card, microphone, etc.) and some offer only the software that integrates with hardware presumably installed in the user's PC or workstation. Some systems operate as service providers which means that they route communications data through their own central switch. Here follows a list of software packages with descriptions of their unique features and capabilities.

    Other Resources for Information about Internet Audio/Video telephony

  • Digiphone's Glossary of Internet Telephony Terms
  • Internet Telephony Explained
  • CNET review of web phones (10/16/96)
  • Two-way audio and video software directory
  • Quicknet's guide to Internet Telephony
  • Web Dog's Internet Conferencing
  • Gareiss, Robin. Voice over the Internet. (09/96) Article and diagram of a gateway connection scheme.
  • Conclusion

    While the above list represents a myriad of ways to use Internet telephony for conference and private communications, it also represents the infancy of the technology. Nearly every system relies on its participants being joined into an Intranet or WAN or to be linked through a central switching server. Most of the assorted products offer equivalent features but, rather than attempt a joint effort at standardization, each product is jockying to be in the most popular position when the field gets narrowed down. No two software applications will, as yet, 'talk' to one another. Since most of the applications are offered free or at minimal expense, it is an easy matter to make a connection through any system, but without a common protocol for audio/video transmission, the participants must agree on a single system and restrict their 'telephone books' to users who possess the same conferencing packages. It is inevitable that, with such technology available, the telephone and the Internet will become irreversably entwined. A caller will be able to initiate communication from a telephone, a workstation, a PC, a laptop, a cellular phone, or some as-yet-to-be-invented device and to send and receive live or delayed audio, video, text, graphic or other data transmissions restricted only by the hardware at the participant's end and not by the network through which the data is sent. At that time, Internet telephony will be able to stand and make its first real steps toward the maturity of communications technology.

    Lizz Caplan 9/29/97