Coming Soon To Your Desktop: Advanced Internet Videoconferencing

Release Date: July 23, 1999

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The enormous potential of both telemedicine and high-grade distance learning may be one giant step closer to being realized if an experimental, three-way demonstration of advanced Internet videoconferencing technology on July 27 involving the University at Buffalo, Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) in Buffalo, Ohio State University, the Jackson Laboratory and others goes off without a hitch.

The groundbreaking demonstration involves bringing high-quality videoconferencing and streaming (broadcast) video technologies to the desktop for a practical application that would be much more convenient and affordable than is possible with current technology.

"This is the old George Jetson routine where he picks up the phone to call his wife and they see each other on TV," explained Mark Woodard, distance-education computer technician for the University at Buffalo School of Nursing. "We're just using the Internet to do it."

The experiment involves a presentation to be given July 27 by Woodard and Kay Sackett, Ph.D., UB professor of nursing, at Syllabus Web99, an academic conference sponsored by Syllabus Web Press in Santa Clara, Calif. They will use this technology to demonstrate to conference attendees the UB nursing school's innovative pilot project that uses videoconferencing to allow clinical evaluation of students in the Family Nurse Practitioner Program.

During those evaluations, portable videoconferencing equipment is rolled into hospital rooms and other clinical settings so that UB nursing faculty or physicians can evaluate their students -- while the students are working with patients -- without having to travel to the students' clinical sites. After the sessions, students and professors can review the tapes together to assess the students' work with the patients.

"We had planned on doing a 'live' demonstration in California of a mock student evaluation occurring in Buffalo over an ISDN line," said co-principal investigator Nancy Campbell-Heider, Ph.D., UB nursing professor.

Right now, ISDN (integrated services digital network) lines, which must be installed individually and incur charges as do telephone calls, are the prevailing method of videoconferencing. Even large universities like UB, as well as corporations and hospitals, have only a handful of such lines, limiting videoconferencing to auditoriums or conference rooms.

When an ISDN line was not available at the conference site, UB information-technology staff decided to try to develop an alternative using the Internet, an extremely attractive -- if technically complex -- option, since anyone with a desktop PC and Internet access is suddenly a potential audience member.

If successful, the UB project will have major implications for health-care delivery in remote areas and for distance learning, especially within the next few years when Internet 2, with its huge bandwidth capacity, is up and running.

"With the Internet, the endpoint possibilities are virtually unlimited," said Jim Whitlock, associate director of computing services at UB who, along with his colleague, Peter Jorgenson, has been leading the university's effort to bring videoconferencing to the desktop.

Whitlock will coordinate technical control of the July 27 experiment from the Jackson Laboratory in Maine, an arrangement he finagled when he learned that the experiment would have to take place while he was scheduled to vacation on Mt. Desert Island. The Jackson Laboratory since has signed on as an extremely enthusiastic partner, Whitlock said.

The interactive session will be efficiently and economically transmitted to desktop viewers at UB and all throughout ECMC, he explained. This will be done on the Internet conference "bridge" at Ohio State University, which serves as the distribution point for the multiple transmissions. An IP/TV broadcast server donated from Cisco Systems, Inc. will allow viewers to see and hear the demonstration.

Whitlock explained that if successful, this experiment of strategic high-performance Internet technologies will not only prove that extremely high-quality video images -- of the caliber necessary for advanced telemedicine -- are possible, but will have major impacts on high-grade distance learning, global scholarly collaboration and multi-site administrative collaboration.

"This is an experiment," stressed Whitlock. "By definition, it may fail completely. But we are hoping that this event will offer a preview of the easy, high-quality videoconferencing and streaming video that will be commonly available on the Internet tomorrow."

Eventually, Whitlock explained, this kind of technology will be standard on a basic PC. Some universities already are envisioning putting the H.323 technology (the technical standard for conducting videoconferences over the Internet) onto the desktops of every faculty member.

"This has to do with a visceral, human phenomenon," said Whitlock. "We want to see the person we're talking to."

Faculty in the UB schools of Nursing, and Medicine and Biomedical Sciences are particularly eager to see this technology work.

"We're very interested in using this technology to improve both delivery of health care and education," said David G. Ellis, M.D., UB assistant professor of emergency medicine and associate director of emergency services at ECMC. Ellis will be the attending physician precepting the student nurse during the demonstration.

"With ISDN, I'd have to wire lots of different locations in the hospital to get videoconferencing all the places we want it," he said. "But with our hospital network, it already goes to every location that has a desktop. With the Internet and PCs as your platform, you can literally get into every office and emergency-room department in the world," said Ellis.

UB officials credited Computer and Information Technology's Advanced Educational Technology Skunkworks -- a group that evaluates and builds technology solutions for videoconferencing and distance learning -- with having the vision to make this advanced technology usable for the UB community.

"The entrepreneurial efforts of Jim Whitlock and Peter Jorgenson are greatly appreciated," said Hinrich R. Martens, associate vice president for computing and information technology at UB. "Their ingenuity and persistence on behalf of Skunkworks have created a communications capability which will become increasingly valuable in the years to come. Internet-transmission quality and bandwidth capacity will rapidly improve with Internet 2. TV over IP is ideally suited as an important application."

For Whitlock, the proof will come July 27, but even if something doesn't work, he is certain that videoconferencing will be coming to your desktop soon.

"I've often said, half-seriously, that if multimedia had been developed before the written word, maybe the written word would not have been developed," he said. "The draw of the visual is just too powerful."

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Ellen Goldbaum
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