Intelligent Video Conferencing


Video conferencing has developed from an emerging technology into a useful and widespread tool for improved communications. As the technology has grown, so has the application base. Whereas it once was for the exclusive use of executives in board rooms, video conferencing is now becoming accessible to the small business owner and home user alike.

This technology allows two or more users to communicate in a way not allowed by telephony, email and the like. It is the real-time audio-visual impact that attracts so many users. For if, as the expression says. a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more valuable in the transfer of information is motion picture, multiplied by many users? This is not to say that the technology is not without its flaws. While high quality systems are available at equally high prices, and cheaper systems often lose their appeal after a few hours of use, there remains a need in the marketplace for a low to mid cost system offering originality and practicality in the same package.

It is this niche in the market that the Intelligent Video Conferencing system addresses. It is a hardware/software product that is designed to be a third party add-on for the QuickCam by Connectix. The QuickCam is a small black and white C.C.D. digital camera that provides modest resolution and frame rates at a very low price. The system will allow users on a standard IP-based LAN to video conference using a user-friendly, Java-based graphical user interface. The originality and marketability of the product, however, lie in the fact that it is a "hands-off" solution, in that the user is no longer restricted to sitting in front of the computer terminal while video conferencing. The motorized hardware allows the user to move around freely within the vicinity of the station while being conveniently tracked around the room.

There is no doubt that the most effective communication occurs between individuals who are near each other. It is in this environment where body language, mannerisms, use of visual aids, and spontaneity supplement, if not underscore the message being communicated. Herein lies the vision of the project: to demonstrate the feasibility of developing a cost-effective, easy to use, "technology transparent" communications tool. "Technology transparent" is the term used to define the lack of complicated interfaces, procedures and skills needed to operate this system. The ultimate goal is to make the technology a "second nature" background process, allowing the user to use all of his/her resources into communicating effectively (walking casually around the room, pointing to diagrams and charts, etc.). This admittedly ambitious goal, which would require advances in the audio-visual quality of the supported product and the underlying network technology, would bring budget video conferencing out of the "novelty" stage to the profitable consumer marketing stage.

The project was intended to be the first stepping stone to this goal. The aim was to deliver, within a six to seven month time frame, a functional, two-way, video-conferencing prototype. The end product is a hardware/software package with the intent of demonstrating the feasibility of a full-blown system. To this end, the hardware mainly consists of Motorola's MC68HC11 evaluation board, a breadboard with some necessary interfacing hardware, the mechanical assembly which houses and moves the QuickCam, and the user's transmitter pack. The software is a Java-based application. The user's PC is connected to the QuickCam and necessary hardware via the parallel and keyboard ports. Thus, the end product is a functional system in prototype form. Because of this target, the Motorola evaluation board was quite ideal. It allowed for easy interfacing, code uploading and system debugging through its monitor program. Finally, the breadboard connects to the evaluation board's connector and the receiving transducers, which were placed on the QuickCam via a custom built connector.