Meeting room with a flickering view: Richard Lander looks at the latest technological aid for business communication

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The Independent Online
THE march of technology has brought businesses - or branches of the same business - closer together. With teleconferencing they can establish eye-to-eye contact across continents; with modems they can send computer files down telephone lines; and with faxes text and pictures can be transmitted almost anywhere in seconds.

The time has come to pull them all together and the quest has been to establish a technology in which participants can see each other, talk to each other and exchange pictures, words, ideas and concepts. On top of that, the system has to be interactive - the buzzword underlying all communication technology now - enabling users at each end to add value to each other's ideas.

That time is now. Last month, Northern Telecom, the Canadian telephone network and switching group, announced the European launch of Visit, its solution to the problem of combining all these disparate elements of business communication.

The concept behind Visit is to fill in the gaps that standard teleconferencing leaves. 'We asked ourselves whether we wanted to be in the teleconferencing business,' said John Laycock, the director for new enterprise development at Northern Telecom Europe. 'The answer was yes, but we thought it formed only a small part of communications.'

Mr Laycock reckons that in a normal meeting, eye-to-eye contact forms less than 10 per cent of what goes on. The remainder revolves around flat surfaces in one form or another - briefing papers, overhead slides and charts, flip charts, whiteboards and the rest.

'We stuff them in a briefcase, bring them to a meeting and share them out. We wanted to replicate that on Visit.'

Visit's technology is based around a standard personal computer - either an IBM-compatible PC running Windows or an Apple Macintosh. Both allow the screen to be divided up so that different functions can run simultaneously.

The Visit hardware itself consists of a tiny computer-top camera, a video board inside the computer and cabling to connect computer to telephone network.

Like all forms of communication Visit needs two terminals and something to connect them. This could be a company's own private telephone network, using digital lines, or high- grade ISDN lines supplied by BT or other national operators. In either case, the lines have more 'space' - up to 12 times as much - to send data down, so that words, pictures and data can reach their destination that much faster.

On the screen, the business end of Visit is the exchange of data in graphic or file form. At its most basic this replicates the meeting-room whiteboard. Ideas can be pasted in from text and graphic files. Users at both ends can then use simple drawing tools to add on, cross out and annotate while discussing their ideas over the phone.

More formally crafted files can also be transmitted. These could range from computer-designed models to financial spreadsheets or training manuals, which can again be changed at either end and discussed. While this replicates what computer users have done for years via modems, it can do it much quicker - in seconds rather than 20 minutes or more.

With the emphasis placed away from teleconferencing, it is not surprising that the video side is Visit's least exciting feature. The picture in the top right corner is a somewhat grainy, flickery, black and white image.

At eight frames a second - compared to broadcast standard of 25 - it is to be expected. But again Mr Laycock emphasises that video plays a complementary rather than primary role in communication. 'People want to use it like a rear-view mirror in a car - to check it occasionally rather than obliterate the main task at hand.'

Mr Laycock also sees new uses evolving for the mini-camera. 'You don't have to train it on a face. You can hold up an object - a spare part or whatever - rotate it, describe it and show people how it works. Recipients can then take a snapshot and print it out at the other end.'

He describes it as a 'fax for solid objects' and more philosophically 'making the imaginary part of a conversation real'.

Industry analysts are excited by Visit and the handful of rival products beginning to emerge as niche operators in California's Silicon Valley and the giants of computing and telecoms apply their minds to the office's new frontiers.

'Visit's an important step forward,' says Mark Lowenstein of the Yankee Group consultancy. 'It shows teleconferencing is going to be part of a more multi-media environment. The collaborative element is strong, it's easy to use and the file sharing works very well.' The video, he agrees, is the weakest part.

Rather than sell Visit off the shelf for users to 'plug and play' on existing terminals, Northern Telecom is marketing the product in Britain as a one-stop package through a computer manufacturer, P&P. The cost - including installation, hardware, training and support but not the PC itself - works out at just under pounds 3,000 per terminal. Extras will include colour video ( pounds 1,000 extra) and connection to an ISDN line (about pounds 700 to install and rent for the first year).

At that point, Mr Lowenstein reckons, Visit is a little expensive. Although it is much cheaper than the tens of thousands needed to set up a full-blown teleconferencing suite, the rush towards desktop technology has seen a rash of low-price systems emerge in the United States during the past year.

But even at these prices, Mr Laycock argues that customers buying Visit should be able to achieve payback within a year. If it is successful, we could all be keeping a closer eye on each other.

(Photograph omitted)