Video to the Desktop: Are We There Yet?
Trouble was, only a handful of PCs actually could receive the Webcast. Although Labor normally buys computers equipped with the inexpensive sound cards needed to capture and display audio-video transmissions, departmental policy calls for disabling those cards. The aim is to keep huge multimedia files off Labor's local networks, which could quickly become congested.
"We are suffering because of our current infrastructure," says Phillip Rene, a computer specialist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Labor agency. The department is upgrading its networks, but some of the money for the upgrades has been diverted into the drive to get systems ready for the year 2000.
It's been a frustrating time for Rene. For three years, he's been pushing managers at BLS and Labor to jump on the desktop video bandwagon. They push back by asking him to justify the expense. He describes the effort to make the business case as "a hard dilemma," but he persists nonetheless because he believes Labor and other federal agencies soon will be handicapped by a lack of desktop video capability.
"Most of the kids coming out of college now are already experiencing" desktop video, and they'll be reluctant to go to work for organizations that don't use it, Rene argues. He talks of the desirability of delivering conference proceedings to employee desks nationwide. He says agencies can increase public understanding of and support for government by using audio-video presentations to communicate with citizens and customers.
The possibilities are limitless, in Rene's view, because we won't know what we can do with video until we can truly put it to work. "Your applications will follow your bandwidth" is his techie version of a well-known slogan: Build it and they will come.
But Labor is not alone in postponing wide use of desktop video because of network limitations. In fact, only a few federal agencies are encouraging development of these systems. But the Defense Department, with its more robust networks, and some others such as Housing and Urban Development are beginning to employ desktop video routinely.
It's safe to say that video someday will be a normal use of government PCs. The big question is whether "someday" will arrive this year, next year or a few years out.
The ingredients are largely at hand today. If, like many federal employees, you have a PC with Windows 95 or Windows 98, an Internet connection, a sound card and either speakers or headphones for output, you can watch video. Check www.broadcast.com for an idea of the variety of video sports, news and entertainment programming available to the general public, and www.hud.gov/webcasts to see what one Cabinet department is beginning to publish in multimedia format.
When you access these sites, your Web browser is bolstered automatically by what's called "plug-in" software that receives the multimedia stream from the network and coordinates the sound and video output. The Windows Media Player from Microsoft Corp. usually comes free on PCs with Windows 95 or Windows 98, or it can be downloaded from www.microsoft.com.
RealNetworks Inc., another Seattle company, distributes its rival RealPlayer for free at www.real.com. RealNetworks, formerly a Microsoft partner, now has allied with Lotus Development Corp. to include audio and video software in Lotus Notes and Domino.
Most people will find the video fuzzy, jerky and too small. It's adequate for viewing a "talking head," but forget about trying to discern numbers on a chart, or anything else with visual subtleties. Sound quality tends to be better, at least on PCs with speakers, but both audio and video are subject to network delays like those encountered when downloading documents from the Web.
If you want to send video out over a PC network or the Internet, what do you need? At a minimum, you need a video input device-a video camera, which can be bought for as little as $100 without sound capabilities, or a tape or compact disk player hooked into your PC. With video software, you can create video files for anyone accessing your server.
The software packages the video so that it can be transmitted over the network, compressing it to a more acceptable size. Clever technology can eliminate some frames or other aspects of the video without making a noticeable difference in what the viewer sees, but sometimes the effects of compression are all too visible.
Still, compression is necessary. Besides reducing network congestion, it reduces the storage needed for a video file. The disk capacity to store one hour of Internet video can cost more than $100, so storage efficiencies are quite desirable.
More expensive hardware and software will, of course, produce better-looking and better-sounding results. The more expensive products also may offer better integration of the audio, video and other technology, and often they will be easier to use. Ease of use is important because multimedia software techniques and standards become more complex as the technology advances.
The complexity is compounded because many of the leading-edge Internet video companies are start-ups with limited clout in the marketplace. They may or may not survive their swims among the technology sharks.
Try It Out
Given the rapid changes in the marketplace, the best way to judge these products is to see one for yourself, then try it out on your network. If you're looking for desktop video, always insist on assurances that the video can be viewed by ordinary PCs via the Internet. Proprietary communications technologies spell trouble.
When planning your server setup, remember that simply storing the files on a server for download is less difficult technically but also less popular than "streaming" the content over the network. In the former approach, typified by early versions of Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime video technology, the user receives an entire file, opens and plays it, and can save it, as well.
With streaming-the approach used by Microsoft, RealNetworks and others-the file begins playing as soon as the first piece arrives. It's more analogous to broadcasting. And it's more suitable for continuously changing information, such as news updates.
Network and file storage overloads are more likely with streaming video than with simpler file transfers. But these are not the only problems that may confront any agency that's distributing video on the Internet. For example, managing a video library of any size quickly becomes a real issue. The server administrator is confronted with an assortment of large, poorly labeled files; only someone knowledgeable about each topic can review the content, and he or she must view the files in their entirety.
Another startup, Digital Lava Inc. of Los Angeles, sells software to manage and edit those files. It allows users to break a video into small pieces, label them, and mix and match them for different purposes. For example, portions of a training video on security policies could be used in another training video for new employees. Digital Lava CEO Josh Sharfman says editing a video should be about as easy as editing a Microsoft Word document. More tools like this will be coming along.
It doesn't make much sense, after all, to use a $2,000 PC to replace a $150 videotape player or compact disk player, particularly when the display is of lower quality. It makes sense only if the PC format offers something extra. One such extra is users' ability to view video at their PCs, without going to a special video-equipped site.
Another extra that may keep desktop video usage expanding is its potential for use in small pieces and for being used and reused readily. Some experts predict that in the business world, small film clips soon will be tucked into "help" files to demonstrate specific techniques, attached to news releases, included in product catalogs on the Web, and so on. The snippets of video will enhance the communication of information in documents, but they won't replace documents. This is a different approach than, say, transmitting a one-hour training video over the Internet. The film-clip approach would minimize network congestion and take advantage of the PC's strengths.
Proponents of desktop video envision that it will be used in some of the following ways, as well. It may be the technology that ushers in the long-promised video telephone. With a large display screen, it could supplant the video teleconferencing systems that are designed for meeting rooms, or the teleconferences could take place at the participants' desks.
Desktop video technology could ease managerial resistance to telecommuting by putting distant employees within eyesight. It could improve training technology by providing instruction in small segments that employees would see just when they needed to acquire a particular skill or brush up on an old one. Employee meetings to explain new policies or introduce programs could be replaced by two-way live video that could be replayed later by anyone who missed the live Webcast.
Turning the Tide
All of these uses already are being tried out in federal agencies. For example, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is using Intel Corp. desktop videoconferencing products for meetings and Microsoft's video streaming products to capture classroom lectures and store them for use by future or off-campus students.
The U.S. Information Agency, meanwhile, is using communications satellites to carry data and video between headquarters and a growing number of foreign posts. A test last year showed that the two-way PC videoconferencing, using the NetMeeting software that comes with current versions of Microsoft Windows, was feasible.
Once the year 2000 problem is behind us, desktop video proponents say, more federal agencies will be ready to invest in these kinds of technologies.
Skeptics say unlimited use of video on agencies' local networks and the Internet is not in the cards anytime soon. "The government is not going to run an ISDN [high-capacity communications] line to everyone's desk," says Craig B. Malloy, general manager of the Videoconferencing Systems Division of Polycom Inc., a San Jose, Calif., videoconferencing company.
But as networks, PCs and multimedia components become more powerful and less expensive, video is creeping onto the desktop. With video files so widely available on the Web, their everyday use in government offices is likely to be just a matter of time.
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